What Small Black Duck with a Big White Spot on Its Head Is Popping Up Like a Cork in Lake Ontario?

Many types of ducks spend the winter loafing and feeding on Lake Ontario before flying north again to nest. That makes for interesting walks along the waterfront in the winter as you’re never quite sure what waterfowl you may find. One of my favourite ducks is fairly small, smaller than a mallard, and it likes to dive for its dinner. When it comes up from a dive, it tends to pop up like a fishing bobber after a sunfish escapes or like a cork popping to the surface after being let go underwater. To me, these ducks are amusing to watch as they dive and surface. They are Bufflehead ducks.

Photo of Bufflehead Male Neck on NaturalCrooksDotCom

The males have quite a large wedge of white on the back of their head. The rest of their face looks black but when the spring sun hits it right, it can shine with a rainbow of iridescence. Like oil on water, the feathers can shimmer with purples and greens and hints of blue.

Photo of Bufflehead Male Flying On NaturalCrooksDotCom

The bills of both males and females are blue-ish grey or silvery. Their legs and feet look like a surprisingly bright orange to me, but other birding sites state they are in fact pink. I’ll have to look more closely the next time the ice melts and these attractive birds can come closer to shore.

Photo of Bufflehead Female on NaturalCrooksDotCom

Female ducks are plainer in colouring. They have a noticeable white cheek patch on a brownish face.

Where Do Bufflehead Nest?

The ducks seem to pair up quite early. According to AllAboutBirds they often stay pair-bonded for several years. So likely the pairs I see here will stay together even when they migrate north to nest in the spring.
Photo of Bufflehead Pair On NaturalCrooksDotCom

According to AllAboutBirds, Bufflehead nest in cavities in trees. That’s a clue that they don’t go as far north to nest as some of our other wintering ducks. Apparently, they particularly like holes made by Flickers.

What Are The Bufflehead Eating?

Photo of Bufflehead Male Head on NaturalCrooksDotCom

These diving ducks aren’t competing for fish with the Red Breasted Mergansers that are often in the same waters. Instead, the Buffleheads are looking for crustaceans, mollusks and aquatic invertebrates. Yes, that includes the zebra mussels that are so plentiful in Lake Ontario. According to the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center website, about 25% of the Buffleheads diet in Lake Erie was zebra mussels and about 50% was amphipods.

Are Bufflehead Common?

Photo of Bufflehead Flock in Flight on NaturalCrooksDotCom

According to a Hinterland Who’s Who article Bufflehead are actually a relatively uncommon duck. Their need for a specific size of nesting cavity in fairly open woods limits where they can reproduce. In addition, the chicks are vulnerable to cold or wet weather and to attacks by large fish such as pike.


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