A couple weeks ago I mentioned that a hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) can be easily confused with a bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) in the field. I have never done a post on the bufflehead. . .
Buffleheads are small diving ducks that are usually found in small groups or flocks. Migratory, buffleheads breed in Canada and Alaska and winter in the southern part of the United States and along the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts. In the western United States there are a few isolated, permanent populations of buffleheads. We are lucky enough to have one of these year round populations near our home in Northeastern California.
A male breeding male bufflehead is indeed a distinctive looking bird with his black back and white undersides. The large “puffy” head is iridescent purple-green with a large white patch that is difficult to miss. First year males and eclipse (non-breeding) males resemble females, which are a dark grey-brown above and dusky white below. Their white head patch is reduced to a wide, elongated stripe under the eye. The head is dark, but not iridescent.
Buffleheads are usually found around lakes, ponds, marshes and other bodies of water, both fresh and salt, but not along the open coast. They dive underwater in search of aquatic invertebrates, crustaceans and mollusks, which they usually swallow while still underwater. In the fall and winter buffleheads will eat some aquatic vegetation and seeds.
Old cavities in trees, particularly the former nests of northern flickers (Colaptes auratus) located in woodlands near small lakes and ponds, are the usual nesting sites of buffleheads. However, buffleheads will utilize nest boxes. Buffleheads are mostly monogamous with the same pair mating for several years.
These buffleheads were photographed at Eagle Lake and Baum Lake, both in Shasta County CA. The purple and green iridescence is visible on several of the males. I believe the one non-breeding duck is a first year male. Photographs of females show a clearly defined eye patch while in photos of first-year males, the white under the eye is less defined with a more “fuzzy” edge. I could certainly be wrong about that though.