COPAKE—Birds do it, butterflies do it, people do it—even bufflehead ducks do it.
It’s migration: traveling south in the winter and north in the spring.
So the bufflehead I encountered was just passing through from some warm shallow coastal saltwater bay in the southern states or Mexico on his way to Alaska or Canada to produce the next generation of buffleheads.
But the duck is dead, I’m sorry to say, no springtime romp in the great north for him, eh? All because of an unfortunate excursion through Copake March 24.
I blame myself. I was too slow in helping him get out of the road before he was run over by a metallic red SUV right in front of my eyes.
I was driving to the office that Thursday afternoon around 12:30. I went through the Copake hamlet and took a right off Church Street onto Center Hill Road headed north. I passed the firehouse and the greenhouses, when I saw something airborne bounce off the front of the pickup truck I was behind. Some feathers flew and I saw a black and white downy ball roll into the opposite lane.
It happened in a split second. The feathery ball rolled over a couple of times and landed sitting up in the center of the southbound lane. I saw it was a little duck.
By the time I processed what I had seen, I knew I had to turn around. So I went down to Mountain View Road, pulled off and headed back the way I came. I did not see the duck immediately on my way back, so for a split second I thought he may have recovered his wits about him and flown off.
But, no, he was still there and alive, probably just dazed by the impact. I see it all the time at my house when birds fly head-on into my windows.
They bounce off and plop on the ground landing with their feet in the air, looking quite deceased. When I hear a certain type of thud, I know just what it is. I go outside to pick them up, usually just unconscious, before Bob the cat shows up and can’t believe his good fortune in finding a free feathered snack.
Back in Center Hill Road, the dainty duck, less than a foot long was sitting in the road like he was comfortably settled on a nest. When I reached the spot where he was—I pulled over.
Cars were coming, but I figured since my car was parked right there and I was standing outside it ready to step into the road, they would stop … or at least slow down.
One car missed the duck, but the second whizzed by over top of it, right in front of me, sending it head over tea kettle. No brake lights in sight.
I let out a scream.
The duck lurched slightly and then I watched the life go out of him. I walked into the road and picked him up. He fit easily in my hands and I carried him back to the car.
He was beautiful and sweet. His head was black and white and he had a strip of shimmery bluish-green iridescence around his throat. I had never seen a duck like him. I thought, “No one can hurt you anymore.”
It brought me little comfort as I placed him inside on the passenger side mat. He was lifeless, but I kept glancing down at him as I drove, hoping to see some flinch, some spark.
“I have a poor little dead duck in my car,” I kept thinking, it seemed to defy logic.
But I drove to the office with the duck and once there I wrapped him in newspaper until I could get him home and give him a proper burial.
I showed him to a couple of friends who immediately started searching the internet and reference books to find out what kind of a duck he was.
I was inspired to do some research of my own. The duck may be dead, but he could still teach me something.
I contacted Will Yandik, a fruit farmer and local bird expert, who serves on the Columbia Land Conservancy Board of Trustees. He periodically leads informative bird walks and knows his avian stuff.
Despite my never having seen one before, Mr. Yandik said by email, “bufflehead are a fairly common spring migrant in the Hudson Valley on the Hudson River and on larger ponds and lakes. They are just passing through, however, en route to their core breeding range in Alaska and Canada. They breed on wooded lakes in the central coniferous forests of the north and winter throughout the southern two-thirds of the USA usually in sheltered bays and inlets.”
Mr. Yandik said the bufflehead was on his way from his “wintering grounds along the eastern seaboard.”
Perhaps this duck’s greatest claim to fame is that he is the “tiniest diving duck,” according to the Kaufmans’ Field Guide to Nature of New England. Unlike the familiar and common green-headed Mallards, who feed while floating on the surface (as do American Black Duck, Pintail and Teal) the bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) takes a plunge for his food.
This compact duck with a large rounded head (like a buffalo) and a short wide bill is a “diminutive diver, one of our smallest ducks, often very energetic in its feeding. Related to the goldeneyes and, like them, nests in cavities; but unlike other hole-nesting ducks, the bufflehead is small enough to use unmodified old nest holes of Northern Flickers, giving it a ready source of good nest sites. Less sociable than most ducks, it is seen in pairs or small groups, almost never in large flocks. It takes wing easily from the water, flies with rapid wingbeats. The name ‘bufflehead’ is derived from ‘buffalo-head,’ for the male’s odd puffy head shape,” according to (www.audubon.org). It also has a number of aliases, such as buffle-head, buffle-duck, buffle-headed duck, spirit-duck, dipper and butterball.
Also according to Audubon, they feed mainly on aquatic insects in summer and on fresh water; on ocean they feed mainly on crustaceans. They also eat many mollusks (especially snails) in winter, and small amounts of plant material in fall.
When courting females, male buffleheads swim in front of them, rapidly bobbing their heads up and down, says The Cornell Lab All About Birds. “In flight, you can identify bufflehead by noting their small size, fast wingbeats, and pattern of rocking side-to-side as they fly.”
This rocking while in flight may be what got this duck in trouble in the first place, that and a low flight pattern.
Also The Fine Dictionary (www.finedictionary.com) defines buffle as “to be puzzled; be at a loss.” Perhaps it was just confused and off course in Copake.
To contact Diane Valden email