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Newfoundland and Labrador

One of the most unique and spectacular winter ducks in NJ

đź”´Buffleheads are small diving ducks that like to winter in New Jersey

đź”´Named after a buffalo’s head, these ducks are found mostly in freshwater bodies up and down the Jersey coastline

đź”´Buffleheads spend 50% of their time underwater foraging for food like small mollusks


Winter is a great season in New Jersey to check out wildlife, notably ducks.

A very small diving duck called the Bufflehead is a very prevalent creature in the Garden State during the winter months, said Scott Barnes, program director, and assistant director of eco-travel for NJ Audubon.

What is a Bufflehead?

The duck related to the golden eyes usually shows up in New Jersey in early October where they will spend the winter here. It is one of the most widespread and abundant ducks here in the state, Barnes said.

They then leave in April and nest north across the Boreal Forest of Canada and Alaska for the summer before returning to New Jersey in the early fall.

Male bufflehead (Photo Credit: Chris Neff)

Male bufflehead (Photo Credit: Chris Neff)

What do they look like?

The male Buffleheads are very pretty. From a distance, Barnes said they look black and white. The males have a white bonnet around the back of the head. But he said, if you look at the males up close, what appears black in the distance, is actually a beautiful iridescent sheen. So, the duck has greenish hues around the eyes and bill, and some purplish color underneath.

The female Buffleheads have more muted colors. They are mostly dark, brownish-grey above, and whiteish underneath, Barnes said. Plus, they have a bold white patch on the side of their heads.

Female bufflehead (Photo Credit: Chris Neff)

Female bufflehead (Photo Credit: Chris Neff)

Where can you find Buffleheads in New Jersey?

The ducks can be found in almost any freshwater lake or pond. There are larger numbers found in reservoirs and slower-moving rivers. The Buffleheads are also prevalent along the coastline from up north at Liberty State Park to Raritan Bay, all the way down to Cape May, and along Delaware Bay.

Bufflehead couple (Photo Credit: Chris Neff)

Bufflehead couple (Photo Credit: Chris Neff)

Why are they called Buffleheads?

“If you look at a bufflehead duck, the male, which has kind of a bigger head with a larger crest on it, then look at a silhouette of that head, it has a shape similar to a buffalo’s head,” Barnes said.

Snow Geese (Photo Credit: Chris Neff)

Snow geese (Photo Credit: Chris Neff)

Where do Buffleheads set up house in NJ in the winter?

Bufflehead ducks nest in old woodpecker holes, Barnes said. They only nest in cavities but Buffleheads do not have any means by which to create their own cavity. They can’t drill a hole out in a tree as a woodpecker can. So, they are limited to using nests largely by a woodpecker called a Northern Flicker, which is common in New Jersey.

So, they take over old woodpecker holes to nest in, Barnes said. The Bufflehead, unlike other ducks in New Jersey, are small enough to use these holes, giving them a ready source of good nest sites.

Female common goldeneye (Photo Credit: Chris Neff)

Female common goldeneye (Photo Credit: Chris Neff)

What do Buffaloheads eat?

They mostly eat aquatic vertebrates, crustaceans, small mollusks, snails, some vegetation, and seeds, Barnes said.

The ducks catch their food by diving. Barnes said they spend about 50% of their time underwater foraging for food in the winter. Buffleheads will suck themselves in, squeeze the trapped air from underneath their feathers, and do a forward leap or push as they dive.

Wood duck (Photo Credit: Chris Neff)

Wood duck (Photo Credit: Chris Neff)

When they dive, they hold their wings in and very close to their bodies, he said. They don’t use their wings to propel underwater. They strictly use their feet to paddle along.
They can stay underwater for about 12 seconds, occasionally longer, Barnes said.
Another cool aspect about Buffleheads is that they are monogamous.

Buffleheads in flight (Photo Credit: Chris Neff)

Buffleheads in flight (Photo Credit: Chris Neff)

“The same male and female will often nest together for at least several years in a row if not, longer. Most of the ducks do all that pair bonding down here on the wintering grounds,” Barnes said.

So, if you go bird and duck watching this winter, you’ll most likely see the males chasing the females, looking to pair up.

Barnes said they’ll then migrate north together to nest in the summer.

Male and female hooded merganser (Photo Credit: Chris Neff)

Male and female hooded merganser (Photo Credit: Chris Neff)

What are some other cool winter ducks that can be seen in NJ?

There are dozens of ducks, geese, and swans wintering in New Jersey, Barnes said.
Some striking birds include the Hooded Merganser. It’s a fish-eating duck that mostly likes freshwater.

The males have beautiful big crests that are framed in black with white in the middle. They like to flare the crest up when they are trying to attract females, he explained.

Wood ducks are also spectacular-looking ducks that are more commonly seen in the summer, but are prevalent in the winter, as well.

Male harlequin ducks (Photo Credit: Chris Neff)

Male harlequin ducks (Photo Credit: Chris Neff)

Harlequin ducks are found exclusively at Barnegat Lighthouse. “They are these gorgeously-patterned sea ducks that like to live around swift currents, fast-moving water, rocky jetties, and coastlines,” Barnes said.

There are about three dozen that spend the winter in Barnegat Inlet near the state park. There are always photographers there trying to get pictures of them. The lighthouse is always packed with people trying to get a look at these spectacular ducks, he said.

Ring-necked duck (Photo Credit: Chris Neff)

Ring-necked duck (Photo Credit: Chris Neff)

Ringed-neck ducks are also very common in New Jersey in the winter. These diving ducks are known for their big white ring on their bill and their pointed heads.

The tundra swan is the native swan of New Jersey. Many of them spend the winter in cranberry bogs in the Pine Barrens. Barnes said they usually go to Alaska in the summertime to breed.

Many buffleheads (Photo Credit: Chris Neff)

Many buffleheads (Photo Credit: Chris Neff)

“So, in addition to all these ducks being pretty to look at, you can see some interesting behavior in the winter in New Jersey, as well,” Barnes said.

Jen Ursillo is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach her at [email protected]

Click here to contact an editor about feedback or a correction for this story.

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