Buffleheads among delightful winter surprises in region

Marion Howe sent me a stunning photograph of an impressive visitor at her feeders. Shortly after I wrote about Pileated Woodpeckers a few weeks ago, Marion sent me a photo of a Pileated Woodpecker at her suet feeder.

Photo by Marion Howe • This Pileated Woodpecker visited the home of Marion Howe in Kingsport, Tennessee..

“Although I now live in Bristol, I previously lived in Kingsport where I had the pleasure to watch a multitude of birds in my yard, including this one,” Marion wrote. “What a treat when she decided to stop by for a bite to eat!”

Away from our backyard feeders, what sort of birds can one expect to find during the late winter and early spring in northeast Tennessee?

If you’re ready to look a little farther afield, the region offers some great locations for searching for wintering and migrating waterfowl. A variety of ducks and geese pass through the region in late fall and winter. A few species stop to spend the season on area lakes and rivers.

Wilbur Lake in Carter County offers one of the largest wintering populations of Bufflehead in the entire region, if not the state.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Lingering waterfowl, such as these buffleheads, are found in the region in winter and spring.

The Bufflehead belongs to the genus Bucephala, which also includes Common Goldeneye and Barrow’s Goldeneye. These three ducks are all small tree-hole nesting sea ducks found exclusively in the Northern Hemisphere.

The “sea duck” family consists of several other types of ducks, including scoters, mergansers and eiders. All but two of the 20 species in this grouping occur only in the Northern Hemisphere. Most of the sea ducks, not surprisingly, are adapted to life in salt-water environments.

The Bufflehead stands out from its fellow sea ducks for many reasons. The breeding habitat of this little duck consists of wooded lakes and ponds in Alaska and Canada, almost entirely within the boreal forest, or taiga, habitat. In the winter months, Buffleheads migrate to quiet bays or open inland lakes on both the eastern and western coasts of North America, as well as the southern United States as far as southern Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.

Photo by bryanhanson1956/Pixabay.com • A pair of Buffleheads enjoy a swim together.

Wilbur Lake has hosted a winter population of Buffleheads for decades. This small duck usually arrives in the final days of October and a few will remain until late April or early May. The flock at Wilbur ranges from about 100 to 200 individuals.

There’s another flock of Buffleheads that spends the winter at Osceola Island Recreation Area in the tailwaters below South Holston Dam in Sullivan County. A one-mile recreational trail at this location offers views of the waterways and any waterfowl congregated on them. The Buffleheads usually remain close to the weir dams at this location. Other wintering ducks at this area include American Wigeon, Mallard and Ring-necked Duck.

Carter County’s high-elevation Ripshin Lake often hosts wintering Buffleheads, but usually only a few individuals are present for as long as this small lake remains unfrozen.

The Bufflehead’s name is derived from “Buffalo Head,” which refers to this small duck’s oversized head. Male Buffleheads have a large, white patch across the back of the head that extends from cheek to cheek, forming a bushy crest that gives the head its large appearance. From a distance, the remainder of the head looks blackish, but when viewed from close range in good light the black plumage in the head shows an iridescent green and purple sheen. The back and rump are black, but the rest of the body is glossy white. The black-and-white pattern is quite unique, making a male Bufflehead impossible to mistake for any other bird. The male’s bill is blue-gray and his legs and feet are pink.

Female Buffleheads are brownish-gray, except for an oval white patch that extends from below the eye back towards the nape of the neck. The belly is whitish, and the female’s bill is dark gray and her legs and feet are grayish.

The Bufflehead is the smallest of North America’s diving ducks. One of the dabbling ducks, the Green-winged Teal, rivals the Bufflehead for the distinction as the continent’s smallest duck. The Bufflehead ranges between 12 and 16 inches long and can weigh 13 ounces. Males are larger than females. By comparison, the Green-winged Teal is usually 14 to 15 inches long and weighs 11 to 12 ounces.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A raft of buffleheads swim on the Watauga River.

Buffleheads spend a lot of time diving for food beneath the water’s surface. Their varied diet consists of insects, crustaceans, some aquatic plants and fish eggs.

The Bufflehead depends on one of our native woodpeckers to provide nesting habitat. The Bufflehead is just the right size to fit into abandoned nesting cavities previously occupied by Northern Flickers.

I’m not sure why the Wilbur Buffleheads choose not to spend the winter months on a salt-water bay farther south, but I am very happy that some of these small, entertaining ducks are so close at hand. I suspect the woodlands around Wilbur Lake may, in fact, resemble some of the wooded lakes on this duck’s summer nesting range.

The Bufflehead is a fairly common duck and appears to be thriving. In 1992, the continent-wide breeding population was estimated at 1,390,000 birds.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A raft of Buffleheads brave some rough waters on the Watauga River.

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