If you walk down 68th Avenue in Kenmore in the wintertime, and you cross a bridge spanning the Sammamish Slough near the boat launch, chances are you’ll spot a bufflehead. Probably not just one, but a pair, or a couple pairs, highly conspicuous amongst the mallards, cormorants, and American coots that ply the slough. For one thing, they’re petite: only measuring about a foot from bill to tail, buffleheads are one of the smallest ducks to grace our waters. Another mark is their plumage, which on males is a striking contrast of black-on-white, accented with purplish-green iridescence near the eyes. Females are decked out in grayer tones, plain only in comparison to the male’s spiffyness. On the slough the buffleheads are unmistakable. Lastly, if you happen to watch them for a spell, you’ll notice how they dive, not dabble, for their quarry—a distinctive behavioral trait among the Merginae, or sea ducks, the subfamily to which buffleheads belong. Aquatic insects and other invertebrates are what they’re after, and these they swallow whole, while underwater.
Here buffleheads are seasonal visitors—“migrants”, in the birder’s parlance. From November through March they flock to Washington and other coastal areas to fatten up before heading to Canada and Alaska to breed. We see buffleheads on a vacation of sorts, wintering in the comparatively mild climate of the Pacific Northwest, where sustenance is rarely locked up under ice. Technically they are sea ducks, but large, inland bodies of water like Lake Washington draw them in all the same, because where there is water, there is life—and where there is life, there is food.
Buffleheads are loner types, eschewing the clamor of the large-scale flock in favor of smaller, quieter numbers. Sometimes mated pairs will just go their own way—do their own thing, as it were, away from the madding crowd. Buffleheads will often mate for life, and return to the same nesting ground each year to raise ducklings in old poplar trees. The preferred sites are abandoned Northern Flicker nests, the closer to water the better.
Soon the buffleheads will move on, winging it northward as the weather warms. Let their diaspora usher in the emergence of spring! I’ll look for them again when the days shorten and the nights grow cold, rain falling without end.