There’s a very unusual duck for St. John. It’s over in the small pond behind Frank Bay that is designated as a bird sanctuary. During the day, it has been hanging out in the middle of the pond diving down to get food – they mostly eat underwater plants, small crustaceans and insects.
I have seen a number of migratory ducks that regularly visit the Virgin Islands in the winter, including blue-winged teals, green-winged teals, ruddy ducks, scaups, and last year a northern shoveler. But no buffleheads, so I was eager to check it out.
The bufflehead was first spotted by Victoria Beasley, a wildlife biologist for the Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources, Division of Fish and Wildlife. She has been conducting waterbird surveys on St. John over the past year as part of a DFW Wildlife Restoration program supported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“I was out on a regular survey at Frank Bay when I noticed a duck I did not immediately recognize. I had an ID book on hand that I quickly referenced and there was no mistaking that this was a bufflehead duck. Based on its known home range, I knew this was a very rare and notable sighting. I have since gone back to Frank Bay several times, and a month later this adventurous duck was still enjoying its time at Frank Bay. I highly recommend stopping by and seeing it for yourself,” said Beasley.
If you do go look for it, you might not see it right away because it spends a lot of time under the water. It will make a short dive, surface, and then quickly dive down again. You might only catch its long, stiff tail as it takes its next dive. Buffleheads rarely come on land.
Herbert Raffaele, author of a well-known guidebook “Birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands” (1989), noted that the bufflehead was “accidental” in the West Indies, “known only from a single specimen collected in the late 1800s in Puerto Rico.” A more recent online app – All Birds, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands and northern Lesser Antilles – records two sightings on Puerto Rico in December 2013, and one in St. Martin in 2004.
I am familiar with buffleheads because some of them winter around New York City. In fact, I got up close to one in Jamaica Bay on Thanksgiving Day. The males are most noticeable because of their stylish black and white look.
Then up close you can see that there is green and purple iridescence on the feathers around their heads and necks.
The name is short for “buffalo head,” because sometimes they puff up their forehead feathers, which makes their heads look even more prominent and bulbous.
They are also sometimes called “spirit ducks,” maybe because they disappear and reappear so quickly, and sometimes suddenly pop up on the other side of the pond. Like a watery ghost.
If I hadn’t been told about it, I might not have recognized the Frank Bay bird as a bufflehead because females look so different from the males. Females have dark brown heads and backs, gray/brown bodies, and just a small patch of white on their cheeks. Later I realized that I had seen them before in New York, too, but hadn’t paid much attention because they were so much less flashy than the males.
Buffleheads generally spend the summer in Canada and Alaska, where they breed and raise their young. Interestingly, though they are diving ducks, they nest in trees, and in holes made by other birds, particularly the woodpeckers known as flickers. I guess it is safer for their eggs and babies to be up high and hidden, and their duck bills are no good for making their own holes in trees. They are quite small, weighing only about a pound, so they can fit into unused flicker holes. They also need to find trees near the water because the hatchlings will have to jump out of the nest hole and follow their mom to the water.
After breeding season, the buffleheads move south like many other birds, spreading out across the lower states and down into Mexico. They usually travel in small groups, rather than alone or in large flocks. Reportedly, one duck will keep watch on the surface while the others are going up and down foraging under the water.
So how did this one on St. John end up coming so far east, and all alone? I read that bufflehead pairs are monogamous and tend to stay together for years. Did she lose him? Or decide to ditch him – just ducking under the water one day and popping up really far away, feeling that it was time to move on?
It is often young male birds that wander, exploring new territories where there might be good habitat. Maybe this one is an especially spirited female duck. Plucky.
I do hope she will stay for a while.
– Gail Karlsson is an environmental lawyer, writer and photographer – author of “The Wild Life in an Island House,” plus the guide book “Learning About Trees and Plants – A Project of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of St. John.” See uufstjohn.com/treeproject and gvkarlsson.blogspot.com. Follow her on Instagram @gailkarlsson