Judith StClaire

Judith StClaire

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Blog Post

During Winter

Tiny Bufflehead Ducks on swift incoming Tide
Tiny Bufflehead Ducks, a group of 3 Males and a Female or Juvenile Bufflehead

Bufflehead Ducks paddle around together on Humboldt Bay. My project for this winter was to capture them on film. After meeting with a certain degree of success, results are ready to post.

Bufflehead Ducks are little. They are about the smallest ducks at 13 inches long with a wing span of 21 inches.  With those beautiful feathers, one duck weighs 13 ounces, which, of course, is less than one pound. As they swim out some distance from shore, their size alone makes them a challenge to photograph.

Left standing on shore, it was impossible to close the distance between me and my target to get a photo.  Never had I so sorely regretted giving up my large camera with its heavy lenses.  I needed that powerful lens to zero in on the Bufflehead.


Sibley Guides has a good bird identification app for both i-phone and android phone.  It is reliable, handy to have in the field and comes complete with bird calls.  Also, it is inexpensive.  May be a good addition to your birdwatching equipment.

Diving Bufflehead
A diving Bufflehead Duck

Bufflehead Ducks

Are camera-shy. By the time you set up the tripod, get one in your sights and press the shutter release button, the danged duck dives.  You end up with a classy portrait of a diving duck or a dimple in the water surrounded by concentric rings.

After Bufflehead Dives
After a Bufflehead Duck Dives

Bufflehead Ducks are wary.  If you stop walking along the waterfront to snap a photo, they immediately change course to swim farther away from you.  You’ve gotta be sneaky and quick to get the photo you want to keep in your collection.

Then, One Day …

Bufflehead Duck with Courting Colors
A Bufflehead Duck Between Dives

Then, one beautiful, sunny February morning, walking along the shoreline of the old marina, I got lucky.  Real lucky.  It had rained hard the previous day and the tide was in.  Conditions were perfect for a little duck to fish for its breakfast.

Near the Wharfinger’s Office, there is a U-shaped spot between the boat docks and the shore.  Since it nearly empties out during low tides, no boats ever moor there.  Birds seem to love the spot.  I’ve often photographed herons and egrets fishing there at lower tides.  Well, on this February day, I was so surprised I nearly fell into the bay when a Bufflehead Duck surfaced about fifty feet away from me.  I was sure the photo gods were looking my way.  My hands shook as I quickly set up my tripod and locked the camera onto its perch.

What a beautiful sight!  A Bufflehead Duck in full courting colors reflected in the calm waters of Humboldt Bay.  After-the-dive close-ups show of tiny beads of water remaining on the duck’s waterproof feathers.

Between Dives

I photographed.  When the duck dove, I retracted the lens and scanned the surface of the water.  It’s always a surprise to see how far they can swim under water.  Just when I gave up hope, the little guy would surface and I’d have to hustle to get everything set up and snap the shot before the next dive.  My success ratio was about one good shot in four.  I have far more shots of a diving duck or after-the-dive wave patterns than I ever wanted.  At times like these, I am really thankful for pixels.  That much wasted film would drive me nuts.

Male Bufflehead Duck
Male Bufflehead Duck

Female Bufflehead


Later that day at home, I added my new photos to the Bufflehead Duck file.  It was a skinny file containing one tiny female that swam away from me as quickly as her tiny webbed feet could paddle.  She now has company.

During winter 2019, we had a rare bird sighting on Humboldt Bay.  See it here:  Pigeon Guillemot  JStC


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