Sea ducks. The phrase sets a certain type of birder (cold-hardy, salt-resistant, moderately insane) throbbing with anticipation. We have spoken before of the Long-tailed Duck, the Harlequin Duck, and other anseriform denizens of the briny deep. But there is one among the tribe that need not cost you your extremities, one pocket-edition sea duck that brings its tang of winter romance even to environs as calm as Prospect Park: the Bufflehead.
The Buffle in Bufflehead is short for Buffalo – the idea being that the bulbous shape of the male bird’s head in full display bears some resemblance to that of the American Bison, which is not a buffalo. Other things that named after the bison which is not a buffalo include Buffalo, New York (and by extension the Buffalo Bills, a notoriously non-champion American football team, and buffalo wings) and Buffalo soldiers (and by extension the Bob Marley song Buffalo Soldier, Ray Petri’s visual imaging company Buffalo, and Neneh Cherry’s hit song Buffalo Stance).
The male Bufflehead puffs up his head feathers, of course, as a pose to look sexy and important to other Buffleheads, very much like the characters in the song Buffalo Stance.
Unlike most other ducks, who are notorious rakes and libertines at best, the Bufflehead is prone to fidelity. Not only do mates stick with each other from year to year (unlike the characters in the song Buffalo Stance) they tend to return to the same nesting site as well – a tree cavity, usually an old Flicker nest. Just in case you were tempted to look to them as icons of family life – always a bad idea with birds – it should also be noted that they share a predilection for violent kidnapping with their cousins the Goldeneyes. When two female Buffleheads fight, the victor will often add some or all of the vanquished duck’s young to her own brood, perhaps in order to provide safety in numbers for her own offspring.
But all of this takes place in the boreal north. The vast majority of North Americans know Buffleheads as winter birds, floating in sheltered coastal areas and those inland waters that remain unfrozen. Though they are tiny and monochromatic, they can be an incredibly beautiful sight as they pepper the water, disappearing in dives and then popping back up like rubber bathtub ducks on the lead surface of the winter water. To me they are holiday ducks, since I generally see them on the Hudson from the window of the train while going from New York back to the Olde Homestead in the late fall and winter. Even at a distance and at speed, their dark-and-light pattern is distinctive.
If you know someone who is too frail, or too sensible, to chase the other sea ducks, show them a Bufflehead this February.