river talk

Bufffleheads: autumn visitors

By SCOTT RANDO
Posted 11/18/20

During the summer months, there seems to be a stable variety of waterfowl species on any given waterway. Pike County, PA sees an abundance of Canada geese, as well as some other species, such as …

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river talk

Bufffleheads: autumn visitors

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During the summer months, there seems to be a stable variety of waterfowl species on any given waterway. Pike County, PA sees an abundance of Canada geese, as well as some other species, such as mallards and common mergansers. With the arrival of fall, however, migrating species may make a stop in our region, allowing us to see more variety. Hooded mergansers and some common loons are just a couple of the species moving through as the weather gets cooler.

One of the species that visits our area in the fall is the bufflehead, a small diving duck that enjoys large lakes. This species always seems to arrive within a few days of Halloween. They stay until the lakes start freezing over, then they head for sheltered coves along the Atlantic coast that are not frozen over. Early spring, they will appear again as they make their way to the boreal forest lakes of Canada, their summer breeding ground.

Buffleheads are black-and-white ducks that travel in flocks and feed on invertebrates on the lake bottom. Buffleheads are the smallest duck we see in the region. It may have derived from “Buffalo head,” as their head appears wide when viewed from the side like a buffalo head. To see a large flock of bufflehead flying above a lake with their wings glinting in the sun is a sight to behold.

One of the things you will notice about flying buffleheads is their very rapid wingbeat. Buffleheads use their feet for propulsion underwater while keeping their wings tucked against their body. To do this efficiently while submerged, buffleheads have short, stout wings that create minimum resistance while swimming underwater. Because of these stout wings, they have more wing loading (less wing-area to create lift in flight) than many other species of duck—hence its rapid wingbeat. It wouldn’t get off the water if its wingbeat was the same as a goose or a swan. Another adaptation can be seen when a bufflehead takes off from the water. It uses its feet to run along the surface of the water and gain sufficient forward speed for its wings to generate enough lift to carry it out of the water. The images with this column show a takeoff sequence of a trio of Halloween arrivals.

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