By: Veronica Sommerville
Date: February 28, 2003
The abundance of sunshine that we have seen lately has set me in search of alternate activities to skiing the hard pack. A drive to Lillooet Lake was like taking trip in to spring. The lake level is very low and incredibly clear rather than the usual silt-laden murky waters of spring. Although I would have been perfectly happy with just the noticeable increase in temperature and lack of gravelly snow banks, my trip was topped off with the presence of Bufflehead Ducks scattered all along the Birkenhead River.
Buffleheads, Bucephala albeola, are a very distinctive looking duck. Although they are the smallest diving duck in North America, the males definitely have one of the largest heads. Their large, round heads are dominated by a white patch that extends from their dark green and purple iridescent forehead. They have white undersides with dark backs and pink feet. The females, as with most ducks, are much more drab. They are generally brown where the males are black and the white on their bodies are much more dull and have only a small white patch extending from their eye. Juvenile males look very similar to the females for their first year.
Buffleheads are great ducks to watch because they can’t seem to sit still. They are generally found in small flocks, where every duck is up to something. While some ducks are diving for their food, others are preening or desperately vying for some females attention. As a male it is important to impress the females as there are fewer of them and many males are left unpaired. You can find sentry buffleheads keeping watch for danger as the others are diving and splashing around.
The female Bufflehead will make a nest in tree cavity often excavated by a flicker, a type of woodpecker. They have also been known to nest in duck boxes and occasionally in a sand bank. The female lines the nest with her down and will lay one egg everyday for a period of up to two weeks. Generally, a clutch will be 7-11 but can have as many as 14. The females incubates the eggs for about thirty days while the male takes off to the molting grounds. Once the eggs hatch it is only a day or so before it is time for the young ducks to leap from the nest. The female leads the bunch to the water and they begin to feed. The ducklings are very small and she will lose about half her brood before they can fly due to factors such as inclement weather and predation.
Once the young bufflehead can fly, about seven weeks later, they rejoin the male at the favoured lake for the annual moult of flight feathers. For three weeks they are flightless, generally in July for him and August for her. Come September, the entire Bufflehead clan are fattening up on insect larvae, aquatic plants and crustaceans preparing for winter migration south. The bufflehead is unique because unlike other diving ducks who need to run along the water before taking flight, it can rise quickly and directly from the lake to flight.
The bufflehead is one of the most beautiful of the diving ducks and it is certainly one of the most interesting to watch. They certainly brightened an already beautiful day on the Birkenhead River for me.