Buffleheads put on a show during winter

The black-and-white bird rose up in the water, aggressively flapping its wings before resettling, then starting a jerky head-bobbing as if its head were on a spring.

The bufflehead was making an animated point, both to the female several feet away and another male headed in her direction.

The serious courtship season doesn’t begin for a couple of months, but because buffleheads form monogamous pairs, sometimes keeping the same mate for years, a degree of courtship displays happens nearly year-round that seems to reinforce the relationship.

This particular drake moved toward the hen while head-bobbing, then swam away with his neck stretched upward. The female followed with her neck stretched out, usually a sign of a bonded or bonding pair.

The males have several ritualistic options: raise certain feathers to widen the area of the white cheek patch; splash water at a competitor; dive and surface under or beside another male; and make a short flight right over the female, head and tail lowered, landing stiff-legged to show off its black-and-white patterns and bright pink feet and legs.

It’s rare to see buffleheads in long periods of contented floating without purpose. Buffleheads are energy in motion, engaging in bouts of courtship displays, territorial irritation, preening or feeding.

The ducks dive for 10 to 15 seconds, although they can stay under upwards of a minute. They usually swallow their prey underwater. The menu depends on whether it’s fresh or saltwater and the season, but includes aquatic plants or seeds, insects, crustaceans and small fish.

A male bufflehead is one of the easiest ducks to identify. The smallest sea duck in North America has a black-and-white head on a short neck and stocky black-and-white body.

Buffle is an obsolete word for buffalo and a reference to the disproportionately large head. Buffleheads have also been called bumblebee dippers, spirit ducks and butterballs.

The black head has a large white shawl extending from near the eyes to around the back of the head during breeding season (or white patch when not in breeding season). Given the right light, its head has a purplish or greenish irridescence.

The female runs to a grayish-brown with a whitish patch on each cheek.

The compactly built bird is 12 to 15 inches long and weighs about a pound.

While most diving ducks have to run along the surface of water to reach flight speed, buffleheads can take off from the water, launching into a rapid wing-beat close to the water.

In the spring, buffleheads will head to the boreal forests and aspen stands in southern Alaska and northwestern Canada. A female nests in a tree cavity (usually a flicker hole) near a freshwater lake or pond, often in the area of her birth.

While she’s busy laying ivory-colored eggs (typically six to 12), about one a day, and incubating them for about a month, the male is off paddling on nearby waters.

About 24 to 36 hours after hatching, a baby bufflehead leaps from the nest to the ground and follows mom to the water. Several weeks later, the little ones learn how to fly.

In fairness to the drake, it hasn’t been all fun and games on his summer vacation. He has molted, rendering him flightless for about three weeks. Once the hen’s hatchlings are on their own, she joins her mate and sheds her feathers.

About mid-October, buffleheads fly south from their nesting grounds, covering hundreds of miles a night, to waters that do not freeze in the winter. They’ll spend the rest of the winter putting smiles on birdwatchers’ faces.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.

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