In Search of the Bufflehead (updated) ~ A Photographic Journey

Updated: Apr 18, 2020

Every spring I wait in anticipation for the ice to melt off our area lakes and rivers. With every hole that opens up, I watch the skies for the first arrivals from the south.

Usually the Canada Geese lead the procession and can soon be found standing on the ice next to an opening. Sometimes with their mate, and sometimes alone, but still standing vigil as if willing the sun’s rays to continue doing its job.

I don’t particularly like geese, as you know from reading, “Get the Flock Off My Lawn,” last year, but seeing the same pair come back to their favorite spot two doors down heralds the good news…

My favorite little ducks will be arriving soon!

After a long winter, spotting the first goose signals it’s time to get the camera dusted off. Rusty skills will need repeating until dubbed sufficient for capturing the fleeting moments ahead.

The first photos of moving targets being the crappiest, it seems appropriate I practice on the geese.

They honk and hiss at the cannon-type apparatus pointing their way, but being large targets makes them good preliminary training. If these shots are bad, then photos of the pint-sized, dipsy-diver’s will be atrocious!

So it’s practice, practice, and more practice.

This year, I got a little too close for comfort pushing Mr. Goose a bit too far. As I aimed at his fuming flapper, he honked in protest.

No matter he and his mate hadn’t any goslings, yet. This soon to be, Pa-Pa Goose, must have had a brood in the making. Letting me know to back off before a serious thrashing would commence, I took stock of the gigantic wingspan, rolled up the window and moved on.

The first hundred practice pictures quickly found their way into the digital garbage can, and out I went on the hunt again.

The next hundred shots held some evidence that my quarry had made it to Michigan, so even though the pictures sucked, I couldn’t throw them away.

Surely, some voodoo curse would mark those shots as the only evidence of the Bufflehead coming through this Spring, and if I threw the away, I wouldn’t have any proof at all!

Calmly, I deleted all of the truly awful photos, weeding out the horribly overexposed scenes and kept only a handful of shots depicting North America's smallest of diving ducks.

On my first official outing, I not only collected photographic proof of the darlings I love, but obtained added shots of other duck species that made the trip worth while.

The first little beauties spotted were the Blue-winged Teal. About the same size as a Mallard duck, this mated pair had the demeanor of a wood duck, not wanting to get their picture taken at all. Sneaking a few quick shots of the pair, I was able to decipher their colors and identify the species for certain, afterward.

The Northern Shoveler doesn't hang around for long, either, if they take a day to stop in our area. This pair was found in the flats of Houghton Lake enjoying a mouthful of snails as I drove by along Old 27.

The next ducks spotted were Ring-necked Ducks. These ducks can be found in larger rafts rather than pairs. A single hen is often spotted being harassed by a handful of drakes vying for her attention.

These ducks are normally too busy chasing the hen around to notice a camera pointing their way, so I felt good about catching their attention long enough to give the hen a break.

The next shot ended up being a two-fer, so naturally, I was excited!

Spotting both a Hooded Merganser and Wood Duck in the marsh pushed me to get a better shot of both.

Unfortunately, the Wood Duck is extremely shy, but the slow drive along the flooding proved worthy of the effort. Snagging only an evidence shot of the Wood Duck, you can at least tell how beautiful he is.

The Hooded Merganser is a bit of an introvert, too. Being a “mated pair“ was the next item on my photographic bucket list, finding four drakes in a little section of wetland surely meant I would spot a pair somewhere nearby.

It was just a matter of time before spotting the lucky drake that had nabbed himself the coveted, prize hen this spring breeding season. I wondered if she would change her mind after viewing the beautiful displays the other drakes demonstrated for her benefit.

After more than an hour snatching hundreds of shots along the flooding in Houghton Lake, the Bufflehead rafts were still furtively, unavailable.

Going home to sort through the shots taken this day, I felt strongly that this outing was only meant as practice. Waiting for my groove to sync, I knew the time would soon come that I would need to be at my best.

Feeling as if the dust coated my mind as extensively as the camera and lens, I continued working through the shots every day. Hopes of capturing images to be proud of lit the forefront of my mind knowing that my favorite little ducks would only be here for 3 or 4-weeks before heading north to Canada.

After spotting the first raft of Bufflehead on Houghton Lake, I was stoked! And as the sunshine melted the last ice off the lake, I dug out the old camouflage tent and pitched it right next to the seawall so the shy visitors would get used to its presence.

The first sunrise offered a chance to view a few prized ducks in the distance, diving for their morning breakfast. As the sun climbed higher in the sky, a few more drakes flew in to play at their courting rituals, but you could tell that most were more interested in their breakfast this morning.

Not long after the orange melted away as the sun climbed higher, larger groups of Bufflehead drakes found their way in, and the spring mating games commenced right before my eyes.

Mesmerized, I watched as the drakes bobbed their heads, sprung up out of the water to blast-off only to skid to a stop next to a hen, and time slipped away. It was a pity they were out of reach for even the 500mm lens I had poking out of a flap on the tent. But as you can see, the backlighting from the sun doesn't help show off their colors.

The next afternoon, moisture hung in the air so thick it cloaked the distant shore in a soupy, white fog. Raindrops began their hit and miss march across the water marking our shore when I spotted the first few pairs of Bufflehead enjoying their lunch about 50-feet out from my camo blind.

I should have bundled up a little warmer this day. As one never knows exactly what to expect from one day to the next during breeding season, I was so deep into the action happening before me that my hands and toes were numb before finally calling it a day.

It wasn’t until off-loading the photos that I could see how important the practice from days before paid off.

Photographing anything in low light conditions adds a degree of difficulty to the task. Adding a long telephoto lens also diminishes the light getting into the camera for a good shot, so adjusting the aperture and ISO so I could get enough speed to freeze the action compounded the issues.

I knew I didn’t want to boost the ISO too high or I would get more grain in the photos than I liked, but I would take the shots I could get.

In retrospect, I think the stark white scene helped get enough light into the camera to aid shutter speed, and although you can’t see the iridescent color on the males, the action was a joy to witness.

With bold chest thrown high and proud, these… the smallest of the diving ducks that come through our state, act as if they are king of the waterways. If these little guys had fists, they would surely be pounding those little chest proclaiming to the world they were the top duck.

The goal over the next week will be having a calm, sunny afternoon in which a large raft of Bufflehead come in close enough to get action shots so the drake's iridescent colors show up like in the shots above.

Today the snow came back for a visit, and even though the ducks don’t seem to mind, this gal is staying inside where it’s warm!

Being the ducks have only been here a little over a week, I hope that I have more time before they move on. Keep your fingers crossed for me!

Until then, keep thinking Spring!

#spring #breeding #ducks #Bufflehead #HoodedMerganser #WoodDuck #Ring-neck #CanadaGoose #Blue-wingedTeal #NorthernShoveler #MichiganBirding #Migration #photography #ISO #aperature #HoughtonLake#PureMichigan

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If you enjoyed the photos in this story, please visit Fine Art America for more at:

To view full sized images of the Bufflehead photos above, visit:

For full-sized photos of the other ducks and wildlife, visit:

For glorious, full-sized sunrises on Houghton Lake, follow this link:

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