By Susan Buckingham
Of all the waterfowl that migrate to the shores of Queen’s Landing for the winter, the buffleheads, Bucephala albeola, are the cutest and most entertaining to watch. Their diving, splashing, landing and playing are endlessly amusing. Even their name is fun and comes from a disused word, buffle, meaning buffalo.
Most days, November through March, you can see small groups of buffleheads along the walking path on the Chester River, in Macum Creek, and in the harbor.
These smallest of diving ducks are little cuties at only 13-16 inches long with rounded heads and distinctive black and white plumage. If you can spot a group and watch them for a few minutes, you will see them playing with one another, diving and popping back up, and taking off and landing by “skiing” on the surface. They are full of character as they dive and devour aquatic seeds, plants, insects, mollusks, crustaceans and small fish while underwater.
Although they breed and spend the warmer months in boreal forests in Canada and Alaska laying eggs in abandoned flicker nests, they winter in most areas of the US where sheltered shallow water can be found. They spend the winter on the water feeding and courting and amusing those of us who love to watch them.
Characteristically, buffleheads seem to jump up before diving and resurface with a little bounce. This is because they compress their feathers to squeeze all the air out giving them the little leap forward before they plunge and reverse the process coming up.
Native only in North America, buffleheads are not endangered, and some data show they have increased in the later half of the 20th century after being previously overhunted. Most population estimates are between one and two million birds. We are fortunate that so many choose Queen’s Landing for their winter home.