The smallest duck in Kansas is the bufflehead (Bucephala albeola), which takes its name from the fact that it has a small body and a disproportionately large head, like a buffalo or bison. In particular, the male can raise his feathers to expand the apparent dimensions of his head and display a bright white patch. This patch contrasts sharply with the rest of his head, which is black with a green or purple gloss in bright lighting. Otherwise, he has a black back, white body, and grayish upper tail coverts. In flight, you may also notice white wing patches and pink feet.
Females and young males are rather dark and plain-looking in comparison, being mostly dark gray. However, they do display a contrasting white oval on the cheek. In flight, you may see white underparts, blue-gray feet, and white secondary feathers.
Best Field Marks
- Puffy black head with white patch on male.
- White oval on cheek of female and immature male.
The male is more vociferous than musical, being known for making sounds ranging from growls to squeals to squeaky whistles. He is most noisy from late winter through spring.
The female makes a loud, guttural ec-ec-ec-ec call when communicating with her mate.
Distribution & Occurrence
Buffleheads are common all across Kansas during migration season, the first arrivals appearing in October and coming through en masse about mid-November. They linger everywhere from wetlands to lakes to playas, as well as on the Kansas River, throughout the fall. Some even persist in the sheltered bays of the larger reservoirs during the winter, long after the other diving ducks have departed, provided that the water stays open.
Migration picks up again in late March and continues in full swing through early April. Some buffleheads may linger until May before leaving for the forests of Canada and Alaska to breed.
Few ducks display such energy as the tiny bufflehead. It is perpetually busy and remarkably agile, swimming with great buoyancy in little groups on the fringes of larger collections of other diving duck species.
Unlike most diving ducks, the bufflehead can take off almost vertically from the water without having to get a running start. Once in the air, it flies low, fast, and directly, with rapid wing beats. It returns to the water by splashing down and sliding across the surface for a short distance.
The bufflehead dives with dexterity, as well. It prefers to forage in shallow water, using its feet to swim underwater as it searches for everything from aquatic insects and snails to crustaceans and small fish. Seeds make up a small but important part of the diet of this species.
As the ducks prepare to leave for the breeding grounds in the spring, some courtship behaviors may be observed. Males will display in small groups, doing a great deal of posturing and diving to attract attention. As pair bonds form, the males become extremely aggressive in attacking and driving off competitors.
Most backyard birdwatchers are not likely to be able to attract buffleheads.
Hunters attract buffleheads with decoys, each hunter having a special formula for what decoys to use and how to arrange them. Some may use no more than about two dozen decoys, while others prefer large spreads. Some rely on bufflehead decoys, while others combine these with scaup decoys for a more realistic appearance.
Male Hooded Merganser
The white crest edged with black of the males of these two species are superficially similar enough to cause some confusion. However, that is about where the resemblance ends. The merganser is a good bit larger and has the thin bill characteristic of mergansers generally. Furthermore, hooded mergansers have reddish-brown flanks that look dark from a distance, as opposed to the white sides of buffleheads.
Winter Ruddy Duck
There is enough similarity between the female bufflehead and the male ruddy duck in winter to be confusing, as both are generally small, dark ducks with white face patches. A glimpse of a long, stiff tail will confirm the duck in question to be a ruddy duck, but if this telltale field mark is not visible more subtle characteristics will have to be relied upon. Note that the bufflehead’s white patch is an oval located on the cheek, while ruddy duck’s patch is a large mark that extends all the way from the bill back to the cheek. Also, the bufflehead has a much smaller, daintier bill than the long appendage of the ruddy duck.
Photos, audio, and more information from Cornell’s All About Birds site.