I remember my first encounter with buffleheads almost 25 years ago on the Missouri River. I was hunting mallards, gadwalls, and other table ducks with my friend Kevin Meneau, a seasoned waterfowler, and he pointed out a small group of “butterballs” that had just landed riverward of our decoys. I asked him why he called them butterballs, and he explained that buffleheads have always had that nickname because they are so fat, like little footballs. A check through my binoculars revealed a small flock of black and white birds, each as chubby as Kevin had described, and each with a huge head, almost half the size of its diminutive body.
Most descriptions of the bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) begin with the drake’s colors, black and white, but a closer look reveals bands of deep green and violet beneath the large swath of white that wraps around the male’s head. When the light strikes a drake’s face just right, I’m reminded of a colorful flag from a faraway country. The female, more subdued in appearance, is clad in various shades of brown with a distinctive white cheek patch.
Buffleheads are a joy to photograph, not only because of their glossy colors, but also for their feeding behavior, which often leaves individuals with a muddy face upon return from each dive. Like other sea ducks, the bufflehead dives for food in rivers and lakes, but this species descends all the way to the bottom where it roots in thick mud for insect returns to the surface, the photographer is often greeted by the sight of an otherwise handsome duck with a comical splotch of brown gumbo around its bill.
Buffleheads are listed as an uncommon migrant in Missouri, but I often run across small flocks during their spring and fall migrations, especially on or near large rivers. The featured image was captured at Marais Temps Clair Conservation Area in St. Charles County, and the inset photo came from a small, private lake in Warren County. I usually find buffleheads in groups of five to 10 individuals, and I enjoy watching them take turns diving while others in the group serve as sentries against predators. I’ve noticed that buffleheads will approach very close to a hide, as long as you are dead still and well camouflaged. The guards keep their eyes on unusual activity along the shoreline, but they are much more forgiving than mallards and other waterfowl.
Buffleheads typically nest in woodpecker cavities in the northern forests of North America, so you are not likely to find any ducklings in Missouri waters. When photographing migrating adults, concentrate your effort during the fringes of the day when the light is soft. Otherwise, the extreme contrast between the light and dark colors of the drake will give your camera fits. Other waterfowl, including mergansers, goldeneyes, and wood ducks, present the same challenges, but under the right conditions all of these brightly colored ducks can be nicely photographed.
—Story and photograph by Danny Brown
We help people discover nature through our online field guide. Visit mdc.mo.gov/node/73 to learn more about Missouri’s plants and animals.
Editor In Chief - Nichole LeClair Terrill
Managing Editor - vacant
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer/Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler