Exploring The Last Green Valley: Little bufflehead duck makes brief annual visit

Exploring The Last Green Valley: Little bufflehead duck makes brief annual visit

For several years I lived near Witches Woods Lake in Woodstock. We could see the lake from our kitchen window and I frequently took advantage of a nice walking trail that went along the top of a long, earthen dam that held back water from the man-made lake.

The lake provided a great opportunity to view wildlife, including painted turtles, frogs, great blue herons, belted kingfishers and ducks.

A special type of duck would arrive in late February or early March, stay a week or so, and then disappear for 12 months. I would look for them as the ice melted from the lake and icy grip of winter gave way to hopes of spring.

The first time I saw a large group of bufflehead ducks, I was completely puzzled as to what they were. There were 20, maybe more, and I watched from a distance as they dove down in the middle of the lake, almost in unison, and then popped back up many feet from where they dove in.

They were small with black and white markings but unfamiliar to me until I returned later that day with binoculars and my “Sibley Field Guide to Birds” to finally identify them.

Since then I have seen them in other locations — but always for just a few days and usually this time of year. I have seen them on the Quinebaug River in Putnam just upstream of Cargill Falls, and also at West Thompson Lake.

It was clear to me that my annual sightings must be during their migration to northern nesting grounds, and that they don’t live year-round here in The Last Green Valley.

Our beautiful valley full of large rivers, lakes and ponds is just a stopping point, a place to rest and feed for a few days before continuing on home to raise another brood.

I took some time to research bufflehead ducks and, as usual, my first stop was the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All about Birds” website. Here’s what I found out.

During the winter months, buffleheads use shallow, sheltered coves, harbors, estuaries or beaches, and tend to avoid the more open coastlines. Inland, they use ponds, lakes, impoundments, or bays along slow-moving rivers.

During spring migration they spend time on major rivers or valley lakes, often in the first spots to become free of ice — just like I had first seen at Witches Woods Lake years ago.

They breed near ponds and lakes in southern Alaska through the forested areas of western Canada, central Ontario and eastern Quebec. Ninety percent of the population is believed to breed from Manitoba westward

Similar to wood ducks, buffleheads are a cavity nesting bird and due to their small size will exclusively use the nesting cavities left by the northern flicker and sometimes the pileated woodpecker — an interesting beneficial relationship between a type of duck and a type of woodpecker.

 In fact, the bufflehead’s breeding range is limited by the distribution of northern flickers.

Bufflehead males are a striking black-and white from a distance and that is what I noticed when I saw them for the first time.

A closer look at the head shows glossy green and purple setting off the striking white patch.

Females are a subdued gray-brown with a neat white patch on the cheek.

The female bufflehead is typically 13 inches long and the male 15 inches long. Their wing span is just over 20 inches. Unlike most ducks, the bufflehead is mostly monogamous, often remaining with the same mate for several years.

Buffleheads feed on aquatic invertebrates, crustaceans and mollusks, and typically swallow their food while still underwater. In the fall and winter they eat some plant matter, mainly seeds of pondweeds and bulrushes.

Their dives last about 12 seconds, occasionally reaching 25 seconds, and the ducks typically stay on the surface another 12 seconds or so before diving again.

Our beautiful region is full of fascinating birdlife. Most of my favorite birds live here year-round and are daily visitors to my feeders and fields.

Others nest and breed in the region but with the coming chill of winter head for warmer regions till spring.

Sometimes, if I am lucky enough, I’ll spot an interesting bird such as the little bufflehead — a weary traveler just passing through, happy to spend a few days with us here in The Last Green Valley.

Bill Reid is chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for 35 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.

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