Birds of Chignik Lake: Bufflehead – Our Smallest Diving Duck

Seen from a distance, Buffleheads often appear black and white – like plump, buoyant miniature Panda Bears bobbing on a lake surface, Viewed more closely and in the right light, the purples and greens on heads of this species’ males are brilliant and stunning. (Chignik Lake, December 31, 2016)

Averaging only 13 to 16 inches from bill to tail, Bufflehead are small but striking. Their diminutive stature plays to their advantage when it comes to nesting. Like their cousins, the goldeneyes, Bufflehead are cavity nesters. But thanks to their small size, they can make use of the not particularly large holes made my Northern Flickers, a medium-sized member of the woodpecker family.

The Chignik River in late winter is often a good place to see various species of ducks biding their time till waters further north become ice free. Beginning at nine o’clock and proceeding clockwise: female Bufflehead; 3 Mallard drakes; Mallard hen; Ring-necked drake; Bufflehead drake; Mallard drake; Greater Scaup hen; and at seven o’clock, that’s a Ring-necked hen on the outside and a Bufflehead drake on the inside. (Chignik River, March 14, 2017)

Buffleheads’ diets shift with seasons and habitats. I’ve seen them eat sculpins in the Chignik system, but they take in all manner of aquatic invertebrates as well as some plant material. Quick and wary, they’re agile divers – a headlong leap and disappear below the surface. Relatively easily fooled by decoys and relentlessly hunted and shot in the early part of the 20th century, their numbers have never fully recovered, though they remain fairly common.

The white sides and black back are consistent, but in the right light the drake’s head lights up with various shades of purple, blue and green. (Chignik Lake, January 27, 2017)

As with most other cavity nesting birds, this species is a good candidate for the benefits of strategically placed nesting boxes. Because their breeding range is generally limited to areas where Northern Flickers live, boxes could help Buffleheads expand their range and shore up their numbers elsewhere. Boxes suitable for Buffleheads might also attract small owls, which would also be interesting.

Even at a distance, it’s easy to identify the ducks this Bald Eagle is strafing as male Buffleheads. There’s no need to worry about anyone’s safety here; unless one of the ducks is injured or sick, they’ll all easily disappear beneath the water before the eagle closes in further. (Chignik Lake, December 31, 2015.)

Bufflehead drakes in flight, Chignik River. (December 3, 2016)

This is about as close as I’ve been able to get to one of these shy little ducks. Clearly if I’m to improve my photographs of this species, I’ll need to set up a blind and put patience to practice. (Chignik River, January 17, 2017)

Bufflehead Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Bufflehead Bucephala albeola
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Bucephala:  Ancient Greek, boukephalos = bullheaded
albeola: from Latin albus = white

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common in late Fall, Winter and early Spring

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Not Reported

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010Rare in Spring, Fall and Winter; Absent in Summer

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Barrow’s Goldeneye

Next Article: Common Merganser – She Wears the Crown

*For a clickable list of bird species and additional information about this project, click here: Birds of Chignik Lake

© Photographs, images and text by Jack Donachy unless otherwise noted.

2 thoughts on “Birds of Chignik Lake: Bufflehead – Our Smallest Diving Duck

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