The smallest diving duck in North America, bufflehead males are about one pound, females a third smaller. These ducks dive for aquatic insects, crustaceans and mollusks, while dabbling ducks such as mallards upend in shallower water and munch aquatic plants. The name refers to their bulbous buffalo-shaped head.
Buffleheads are here in winter, flocking in calm waters of bays or marinas and pairing up with a suitable mate for a relationship that may continue for years. They winter along our coast from Alaska all the way down to Baja, then in spring they head east and north to Canada and Alaska and usually return to the same tree nest hole beside the same pond to raise a family. They seem to prefer northern flicker or pileated woodpecker holes in aspen and poplar, and therefore old trees are critical to the next generation of bufflehead chicks. Forests destroyed by wildfire or beetles and caused by Climate Change means these birds are increasingly in trouble.
Since buffleheads return to the same area to breed year after year, if a local population vanishes because of hunting, logging or wildfire, it will be many summers, even decades before these birds return to the same area. This is just one small cog in a vast web of interconnected nature that shows how events effecting one species thousands of miles from us will have local consequences. Will we see these beautiful ducks with their iridescent heads during future winters beside the Salish Sea?
Larry Eifert paints and writes about wild places. His work is in many national parks across America – and at larryeifert.com