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Diving buffleheads duck in for a show on Spokane River

Sat., Dec. 21, 2013

A small flock of bufflehead ducks has taken up residence in a short stretch of fast-moving water beneath the Post Street Bridge in downtown Spokane.

These energetic birds feed by diving to the bottom of the river and collecting the various organisms they find.

The black-and-white birds float high in the water and bob in the current. As quickly as you see them on the surface, they will disappear into the water, only to resurface a few moments later.

From the height of the bridge or surrounding park walkways, you can see their bodies descend into the water, their wings held tightly to their sides; their feet are their main source of propulsion.

“They seem to like moving water,” said Fran Haywood, president of the Spokane Audubon Society.

The flock has been at the falls for at least a month, so it appears they are going to spend the winter there, Haywood said.

The rugged nature of the surrounding river cliffs probably gives them a sense of security because predators are less likely to hunt for them there, Haywood said. Several of the birds can be seen just below the foot of the upper falls next to Avista’s generating station.

Buffleheads are one of the smallest duck species. They summer mainly in Alaska and Canada, preferring aspen groves where woodpeckers have left cavities in trees that the ducks use for nesting. They winter on ice-free waterways, especially along the Pacific Coast. Spokane is right between the summer and winter habitats.

Haywood said a small number of buffleheads mate and summer in Spokane County, mostly at the Turnbull Wildlife Refuge.

She said their presence downtown will likely be included in the Audubon Society’s one-day Christmas bird count Dec. 29.

The males have a distinct white patch that runs along the back of their head from eye to eye. Their black feathers are iridescent. They average about 15 inches in length. The smaller females and juveniles are a gray-brown color with white patches on their cheeks.

“If they are getting enough food, they will probably stay at least until spring,” Haywood said.

She said that buffleheads often look like they are playing. Their buoyancy allows them to ride the current at times, almost like they are surfing.

“They are cute little ducks,” she said.

Gavin Cooley, chief budget officer for the city of Spokane, said the presence of wild ducks like the bufflehead underscores the importance of cleaning up the Spokane River.

The city is in the middle of a multiyear effort to build storage tanks that capture combined sewage and stormwater to prevent it from polluting the river during storms.

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