Tag Archives: Bufflehead


Common Eider Bufflehead ©Kim Smith 2016Male Common Eider (center) with Male Buffleheads

Last week a reader wrote asking how to tell the difference between Buffleheads and Common Eiders. Both males of the species are black and white and both frequent our shores during the winter months. The easiest difference is that the Eiders are much larger, about 25 to 27 inches, while Buffleheads are about half the size of an Eider, only measuring 11-15 inches in length. Common Eiders are the largest diving duck in North America; the Bufflehead the smallest diving duck.

Common Eider Male ©Kim Smith 2015Eiders have a long sloping bill and move rather slowly.

Male female buffleheads ©Kim Smith 2016

Male and Female (right) Buffleheads

Buffleheads are sprightly and butterball shaped. From a distance the male Bufflehead looks striking, appearing black and white. Up close, the head feathers are a stunning iridescent purple and green. Both Eiders and Buffleheads can be seen feeding all along the Massachusetts coastline during the winter months. Buffleheads inhabit fresh water ponds and salt water whereas Common Eiders are sea ducks. During the summer breeding season, Common Eiders are found across Alaska and Canada all the way south to our region, whereas Buffleheads breed in the boreal forests and aspen parklands of Canada and Alaska.

I am sure you’ve heard of eiderdown pillows and quilts. The eiderdown, plucked from the female’s breast to line the nest, can be collected sustainably and safely after the ducklings leave the nest. Eiderdown has been largely replaced by down from farm raised geese.

Common Eider female ©Kim Smith 2015Female Common Eider

Goldeneyes or Buffleheads?

goldeneyes or buffleheads

I thought they were buffleheads when I first saw them, but they appeared a little too large and weren’t diving constantly the way buffleheads usually do.  They were way off shore, so the photos aren’t great.  I think they are goldeneyes, but not sure.  Who knows?

E.J. Lefavour

Birds of Cape Ann: Buffleheads

Next time you see a flock of ducks, look closely. You may be surprised by the range of  different species within the group. Although not always the case, but more often than not at this time of year, I see several species within a flock. What typically happens as I try to get closer to photograph or film a flock of shore birds, the Mallards, which seem very comfortable around people will stay and the somewhat less seen species, such as Buffleheads, Gadwalls, and American Wigeons will fly away.

Buffleheads, gulls Brace Cove ©Kim Smith 2014 I counted six different species of birds feeding in the seaweed at Brace Cove in the above photo.

This past autumn, and continuing through this winter, I have been filming and photographing B roll all around the ponds and marshes of Cape Ann. Today begins a mini series about shore birds, ducks, and wading birds, including photos and interesting facts, to help better identify the differences between the ducks and wading birds that migrate through, and winter over, on Cape Ann.

One of several Cape Ann geographical features that allows for such a wonderfully wide range of birds to be found on our shores and marshes is the fact that we lie within a largely unrestricted north south corridor for migratory species of birds and butterflies. What exactly does that mean? From the eastern coastline, all the way from Maine to Florida, and between the Appalachian Mountain range further west is a corridor where there are no barriers such as large bodies of water or mountains to fly over, which allows for unrestricted movement of birds and butterflies.

Male and Female buffflerheads ©Kim Smith 2014Male and Female Buffleheads

Male Buffleheads are one of the easiest birds to distinguish from a distance and within a group because of their sharp black and white coloring, comparatively smaller size, and pert, rounded shape. Upon closer inspection the males heads are marked with striking iridescent green and purplish feathers. The photo above shows three males and one female, and she is differentiated by her all over darker color and the patch of white feathers on her check. Rapid wingbeats make Buffleheads easier to distinguish when in flight as well. Their old-fashioned name of “Butterballs” aptly describes these beautiful and welcome winter migrants!

I am by no means a bird expert. I love to film and photograph the natural world around us and along the way find it fascinating to learn about the wildlife and flora that surrounds. Note to all GMG nature and bird-loving readers ~  I hope you’ll comment with your expertise. We would love to hear from you!