The smallest, and I think most would agree, among the cutest North American sea ducks, every autumn Buffleheads arrive on the shores of Cape Ann after having journeyed many thousands of miles from their summer breeding grounds in the Canadian boreal forests. They are seen in twos or in small groups and unlike most ducks, are monogamous. Some males begin courting very early in the season as demonstrated in the flock currently residing on Cape Ann however, the birds will not pair until spring.
When out for a walk along shore and pond, you may notice a great deal of bufflehead kerfuffling taking place. The male’s courtship displays are wonderfully exuberant, with much head pumping, chest thrusting, and aggressive flying. The male goes so far as to exaggerate the size of his head by puffing out his bushy crest. Occasionally, the males chase females, but most of the chasing is directed towards other males in territorial displays, which are accomplished by both flying and skidding across the water as well as via underwater chasing. The female encourages her suitor vocally and with a less animated head pumping motion.
Buffleheads are diving ducks, finding nourishment on Cape Ann on small sea creatures and pond grasses, as well as seed heads at the shoreline’s edge.
By the early twentieth century Buffleheads were nearing extinction due to over hunting. Their numbers have increased although now their greatest threat is loss of habitat stemming from deforestation in the boreal forests and aspen parklands of Canada.
The word bufflehead is a corruption of buffalo-head, called as such because of their disproportionately large and bulbous head. Buffleheads are a joy to watch and are seen all around Cape Ann throughout the fall, winter, and early spring. Their old-fashioned name, “Butterball,” aptly describes these handsome and welcome winter migrants!
Listen for the Buffleheads mating vocalizations. The Bufflehead courtship scenes were filmed on Niles Pond. The end clip is of a flock of Buffleheads in flight and was shot at Pebble Beach, Rockport.
While filming at Henry’s Pond in Rockport I at first thought I was seeing a pair of pint-sized, or immature female Mallards amongst a mixed flock of full grown Mallards and American Black Ducks. But no, upon closer examination, their behavior was different from that of the much larger Mallards. They stayed together, the two females, foraging for food along the pond’s edge. When one flashed her brilliant emerald green wing, I realized it was no Mallard but the beautiful Green-winged Teal.
I find it interesting that, based on their style of foraging, waterfowl are assembled by ecologists into several groups.“Dabbler” ducks skim food from the surface, or feed in shallow water by tipping forward to submerge their heads (which is exactly what I had observed while filming the petite Green-winged Teal). “Diving” ducks propel themselves underwater with large feet. A few dabblers may dive, but for the most part, dabblers skim.
Dabblers that we see in our region include Green-winged Teal, Mallard, Mottled Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Gadwall, and Northern Shoveler. Diving ducks are the Canvasback, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Greater Scaup, Ruddy Duck, Masked Duck, and American Wigeon.
A third category, which includes Buffleheads are called “seaducks.” American Black Duck, Eiders, Scooters, Harlequin Duck, Oldsquaw, Goldeneyes, and Mergansers are encompassed in the seaduck group. Read more about Dabblers vs. Divers here.
In the above photo of a male and female Mallard in the foreground, and Green-winged teal in the background, you can see how close in color are the feathers of the females of the two species. The wing pattern is subtly different and you can also see the difference in size between the two species.
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I have been organizing research and lots of photos for our Birds of Massachusetts series. Upcoming stories will feature songbirds, including Mourning Doves, American Robins, and Northern Cardinals, shorebirds of every size and shape including dabblers, divers, and seaducks, and I’ve planned a post just on bird food to grow in your gardens to attract our fine-feathered friends. As I written often, “When you plant, they will come!”