Yesterday 26 July 2008, I was finally able to find and photograph a hen Redhead with young here in Aroostook County! These may be the first confirmed breeding Redheads in Maine and possibly New England...
Since 2004, when a flock of a dozen Redheads appeared in May at Lake Josephine in Easton, I have thought that maybe they might try to nest in the area. A pair lingered for a while in the area that year, but had apparently departed by late June and July when all the other ducks were showing up with nestlings.
In 2005, the Redhead pair lingered in the area longer into the year. I even saw the hen with some young ducklings in one of the nearby wetlands but I couldn't confirm they were hers for sure. They might have belonged to one of the very-similar Ring-necked Ducks that were nearby.
Last year, 2007, Redheads were in the area again and I searched but couldn't find any evidence of breeding other than their presence what appeared to be the right habitat for nesting.
The hen and her 13 young were found in the wetland area south of Lake Josephine-very near the McCain Foods plant. I was actually looking for shorebirds and Ruddy Ducks (which also breed only here) and decided to check this one last (and usually mostly empty) lagoon. Due to all the rain we've gotten recently, the lagoon had plenty of water and quite a few ducks. In addition to the Redhead and brood, there were two broods of Ring-necked Ducks and lots of molting dabbling ducks including Mallards, American Black Ducks and Green-Winged Teal.
Unlike all the molting ducks, which bailed out of the pond as soon as I approached, the hens with broods moved out to the middle of the pond. I think that if there were more cover vegetation on the sides, they would have moved their young into it shortly after I showed up, but there wasn't much available because the pond is usually dry.
Initially I stayed 100+ yards away as I scoped the 40+ juvies and their parents. The adults obviously knew I was there, but they didn't do much and seemed to be watching to see what I was going to do. It was interesting (if not a bit frustrating) that the hens seemed to purposefully drift so that some sprig of vegetation stayed in my line of sight to them. Many of the pictures I took later have a burdock or ragweed stem obscuring some of the ducks.
The ID of a female Redhead is tough one for me and I've spent alot of time studying the females of this species and the Ring-necked Ducks so I could hopefully tell them apart if I ever came upon them. What also makes it difficult is this is the time of year when these diving ducks molt, so they look unlike most reference pictures I could find.
The hen Redhead was slightly larger than the nearby Ring-necked. It had a rounded head rather than the peaked look of the Ring-necked crown. Overall the Redhead seemed to be a lighter more uniform tan color than the Ring-necked hens. There was a whitish band around the Redheads bill that was a bit more pronounced than the light colored band on the other species. I was able to get a decent digiscoped image with both the hens in similar positions. The Ring-necked Duck is in the upper left hand corner.
As for the young birds, the Redhead chicks were a week or two older than the downy Ring-necked ducklings. They were substantially larger and already possessed alot of their juvenal feathers on the sides and tail. I would guess the Redheads were 3 or 4 weeks along. I was able to get a decent shot of the two families beside each other for comparison. The Redhead hen and older brood is in the front and the Ring-necked Duck and her more strongly marked downy young are behind.
After I had taken a bunch of pictures, I approached a bit closer to exit the area along the dike beside the pond. When I did this the hen Redhead swam/splashed and flew towards me and did an excellent distraction display. I guess she was convinced I was after the hatchlings and her show would certainly have grabbed my attention if I hadn't already noticed her! I've never seen a Ring-necked Duck do a distraction display.
Found some online sources about the breeding range of the Redhead. Here's a copy of the USGS Breeding Bird Survey Distribution Map for the duck.