A Bufflehead Meets Its Demise

On a recent ski, I was daydreaming for a moment or two, just staring down at the snow. I glanced up for a moment to see a raptor flying away from a dead snag. It didn’t fly far and landed in another dead standing tree about a hundred meters away. Through my binoculars, I saw an adult peregrine falcon staring back at me.

bird perched on tree branch

Peregrine Falcon

Moving slightly farther on my skis, I spooked a second peregrine. This one though flushed from the ground and when I looked toward its place of origin, I saw a pile of feathers. The falcons had been eating breakfast.

feathers and blood on snow near tree

The peregrines were feeding on a bird when I accidently spooked them.

Curiosity compelled me to investigate the kill. I skied over to the bird on the snow. It was a duck, a bufflehead to be specific. This duck hadn’t been dead long. Blood had yet to coagulate and the falcons had only eaten parts of the back and most of the neck.

dead bird on snow

Peregrine falcons had not been feeding long on this bufflehead when I found it.

Buffleheads are diving ducks that feed mostly on aquatic insects in freshwater environments. The Stehekin River was not far away from the scene, but the river at the location, just a mile or so downstream of High Bridge, is too small to meet the habitat requirements of this species. Buffleheads prefer deeper, more open water found on ponds, lakes, coastlines, and larger rivers.

What might the bufflehead be doing so far upriver? I suppose it could’ve been in the water, but peregrine falcons are adept aerial hunters. Buffleheads are strong flyers, yet peregrines, as the fastest animal in the world, could have overtaken the bufflehead in a spectacular stoop, a swift dive when they strike and kill the bird in the air. The bufflehead might’ve been flying up valley, migrating to a different area, when it met its demise. The cliffs above the river valley in this location would be ideal places for peregrines to perch and hunt birds from.

After a moment or two, I left the falcons to their meal after watching them perch in the trees. When I returned later in the afternoon on my way home, I revisited the scene and found only a smattering of downy feathers and blood stains on the snow.

Feathers and blood on snow with shadow of photographer.

By mid afternoon, only feathers and a few blood spots remained of the bufflehead.

This was a bad morning for the bufflehead, but a good one for the falcons.



2 thoughts on “A Bufflehead Meets Its Demise

  1. Looks like a great ski outing and a serendipitous discovery, which you recognized as an “interpretive moment”. I am so grateful for this technology that allows you to share these with those of us who were not there to experience it firsthand. I hope the snow hangs in there, so you can get plenty more miles in before spring/summer intervenes.

    I have been skiing the local groomed trails jut outside our subdivision, and loving this now almost 4 weeks long string of great weather days. I’ve seen our neighborhood moose on my last 2 excursions, but have not been able to get photos. She stays in the trees, busy feeding, and I’m not about to disturb her by doing the human zoom. I have a blog post in mind, but I would really like to get a decent photo of her to share with folks.

    Your post prompted a memory of a late season ski trek over 30 years ago, in Rocky Mountain National Park. The Naturalist Office (dated nomenclature) wanted photos of the Thunder Lake patrol cabin in winter conditions. As my mentor and quasi-supervisor, Michael Smithson (destined to become Chief of Interpretation at Olympic N.P.) put it, they were wanting dramatic shots, showcasing the accumulation of snow on the roof and up against the walls. It’s funny that nobody in the Interp Division was doing those kind of distance ski trips (almost 9 miles one-way from the Wild Basin winter trailhead). I wasn’t real enthused about doing the 18 mile roundtrip myself, figuring I might be breaking trail the last 3 or 4 miles. I came up with a plan. We were having a fairly good snow winter, and I would wait until sometime in May, then head up there, taking advantage of better weather and much longer days. I think it was mid-May when I took my shot. I had to walk the first 5 miles, with my skis in the slots designed for them on my Jansport Supersack, until, up above Ouzel Falls, I finally reached consistent snowpack. To my delight, someone, probably one of our amazing backcountry rangers, must have been up there fairly recently. I had a track to follow all the way to the open area a 1/4-1/2 mile short of the cabin, where the wind had blown it in. It was late enough in spring that the snow was fairly dense/wet. My skis were only sinking in between an inch and 2 inches on average. Up at the lake, it was still fairly wintry, being above 10,000 feet elevation. I ate a quick lunch, got my photos, did a little exploration, and started down. I had been skiing in sunlight on the way up for all but the last mile or so. The cloud cover had started extending east while I was up there. That, combined with the late day sun losing its strength, eventually disappearing behind the Continental Divide, resulted in an effective temperature below freezing. Oh, that track was fast. The trail, once you leave that 1/4-1/2 mile open area near the cabin, is a steady descent for at least 3 miles. I think it gains at a rate of roughly 400-600 feet per mile, fairly steady, contouring up a south-facing hillside in forest. My metal-edged waxless backcountry skis were making that classic hissing/ripping noise as I zoomed down. After a while, my thighs started burning. Every once in a while, I would turn my head to the right, and watch the trees going by. I was really motoring! Once I had completed the bulk of the descent, exploiting the benefit of the now icy track, it dawned on me that there was a sharp horseshoe curve at the bottom. Suddenly, my reverie turned to anxiety. Thankfully, I had hiked this trail many times over the years, so I had familiarity with subtle landmarks as I approached the switchback. I had to do a radical pole drag to slow my speed, but as the curve neared, I realized there was no way I could safely navigate that tight turn. I had to get out of the track and ski off the trail between the trees with a slight uphill trajectory. Thankfully, my “Plan B” worked. I just stood there for a bit, legs shaking, partially from the adrenalin rush and partially from muscle tension. Having learned a tough lesson, I took it much easier doing that last half mile to where I dismounted my skis and loaded them back into my pack slots. I still had 5 miles of walking to do, some of it postholing through remnant drifts, but I was feeling the pump from that 3 mile high speed descent. It was like walking on air.

    Looking forward to seeing more reports of your ski treks, and hoping the weather cooperates.


    • Fun story, Frank. I’ve had similar experiences, but my skis aren’t the right type for backcountry conditions so my emergency brake is usually just falling into the snow.


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