The Buffleheads are Back

Image of a Bufflehead

Bufflehead Hen on Roberts Bay, by K. Finley and P. Nicklen

Sunday, October 14, was All Buffleheads Day, the day that — with startling consistency — the Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola), known by some birders as the Spirit Duck for its boundless energy, begins arriving in Shoal Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary on Vancouver Island.

Our Important Bird Area Caretaker Kerry Finlay sent us this report on his first Bufflehead sighting of the year:

Shoal Harbour Sanctuary, 7:33 a.m., October 16, 2012

As predicted, with an 80 % likelihood, the first Bufflehead, a single female, has appeared in the wake of last night’s storm (my barometer hit 1019 mb).

She is sitting near the shore on the delta amongst many Wigeons and Mallards. A female Hooded Merganser makes an aggressive rush at her. Buffleheads and Mergansers are closely related and there is probably competition for nesting cavities and latent aggression on the wintering grounds.

Always a thrill.

08:31 White-winged Scoter 3, first of season

09:00 Female Bufflehead in the company of a female Hooded Merganser, fly close together from middle of bay to Mermaid Delta. They are evidently comrades and the earlier “aggression” display was apparently play.

10:35 Bufflehead feeding with four Hooded Merganser females. Average dive time 14.87 with wide variation (3.38). She’s nervous and skittish, wary of attendant Gulls, and terrified of something underwater – likely a Hooded Merganser, which are bringing up many small crabs. Her erratic dive pattern indicates this is her first taste of salt water. Her underwater forays are nine seconds short of the 24 second winter average. She’ll be living on the fat reserves brought from her summer grounds, until she adapts to the sparse diet of her winter habitat.

She looks like your typical female, though her cheek patches are large, and when she flies her white “badge” includes two rows of flight feathers. Munro noted in his early monograph that this pattern was the mark of an individual throughout life. It certainly was in the case of VAL.

12:14 Can’t locate her. Seems she has moved on.

As another data point (now n=16), she hits the All Bufflehead Day target precisely, and further illustrates the unprecedented case of non-random variation around the average. More punctual than the mythological Swallows of Capistrano, more reliable than Wiarton Willie.