Rob's Blog Archive

April 26, 2015

We're Buffleheads, Damn It










My pond, Silly Lake, freezes over every winter.  While it doesn’t freeze through, the surface of ice and snow becomes thick enough to support a truck.  Sometime during the spring, longer warmer days and a higher angle of the sun clear the ice away.  This year, that happened early. By the end of the first week in April, Silly Lake was free of ice. 

And with its open water, it is a haven for ducks and geese.  Unfortunately, I am not an expert on these.  I recognize mallards and Canadian geese, but there was usually a pair of diving birds that made my pond their home, and I had no idea what they were.

My first guess was loons.  We have a loon festival in Seeley Lake and these are diving birds.  However, loons have a dark head and the birds on my pond had a white head.  The birds on my pond were also a bit smaller than loons. 

I kept looking, somewhat blindly, and came to the conclusion that they were hooded mergansers.  That was several years ago.  Pretty much everything matched.  Male Hooded mergansers have a black and white head, a black back, and, usually, a tan breast.   Silly Lake, a small pond, is a classic habitat for them and they do live in this part of Montana.  The only thing that bothered me was the plumage I saw didn’t quite match the pictures.  The breasts of the birds I saw were white rather than tan.  In fact, I found at least one picture on the internet of a hooded merganser with a white breast with tan “trim,” really close to the birds in my pond.  I assumed that the natural variation could include a pure white breast.  Still, while writing a blog on all the birds that visit my pond, I figured I’d double check.  I should say that I was frustrated by the lack of good picture catalogs of birds. 

It took several hours of searching, but I finally came across a set of pictures of geese, swans, and ducks.  I figured I’d check all forty-four pictures and, if I didn’t find a bird that looked more like those on my pond than hooded mergansers, I’d affirm that that was what I was seeing. 

The list included everything from eiders to ducks.  Finally, thirty-eighth on the list, was a picture of a bufflehead.  It had a white breast and no boundary at all.  The behavior, eating, and range were essentially identical to the hooded merganser.  I live in one of the few areas buffleheads call home year round.  I had my bird and this time I was sure.  Looking at various references, it was clear I was not the first and probably won’t be the last person to mistake buffleheads for hooded mergansers, or vise versa.  Each had the other listed as a “similar bird.” 

Richard Feynman talked about going out with his dad and his father pointing out that, if you just know the name of a bird, you don’t know anything about the bird.  The rejoinder that he didn’t point out was that, with the name, you can communicate with others.  With this, you can combine your observations with theirs and develop a more complete understanding of who and what the bird is.  With the correct name, I could learn about the birds in my pond.  For example, one difference between buffleheads and hooded mergansers is buffleheads are “mostly monogamous,” mating for multiple years at a time.  I’m pretty sure I would not have been able to figure that out looking at the birds through my cheap binoculars. 

After all the years believing, but not sure, that the birds I saw were hooded mergansers, I felt weirdly satisfied learning that they were buffleheads.   I was wrong for a bunch of years, but I have learned which bird I actually see and, this time, I am sure of it.  And nothing is more fun than learning.

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