Plants & Animals

Redhead

Enjoy these colorful ducks this spring along the Mississippi River as they head to breeding grounds north of Missouri.

When my friend Kevin asked, “Would you like to photograph a redhead?” I smiled suspiciously, but I knew he wasn’t steering me toward fashion photography. Kevin was talking about a duck. In this case, a drake redhead, a hard-to-photograph species, typically found on big water such as the Mississippi River. Feeling a bit skeptical, I asked “How close can I get to this redhead?” Kevin replied, “That’s the best part Danny; you can walk right up to it!”

The redhead had alighted on a small city lake a few weeks earlier and was feeding and loafing with several mallards, both wild and domestic. During its stay it had become as approachable as some of its flightless pals. “Oh, and one more thing,” he added, “The plumage on its left side looks a little rough but its right side is in mint condition.” The plan was set. I would head out the next morning to photograph one of Missouri’s most attractive diving ducks, from the right side of course.

The redhead (Aythya americana), is classified as a bay duck and is one of several waterfowl species that dives to the bottom of rivers, marshes, and lakes to forage for aquatic vegetation and invertebrates. Waterfowl hunters often refer to redheads and other diving ducks simply as “divers.” The drake redhead is striking with its chestnut-colored head, black chest, gray back, and orange-yellow eyes. Its bill is slate blue with a black tip. Female redheads are much more subdued in color as is often the case with waterfowl. Redheads are considered an uncommon migrant in Missouri but it is not unusual to see them in large rafts with other divers in the fall and spring. Redheads typically breed north of Missouri, on the Great Plains and into Alaska and they are known for their propensity to lay some of their eggs in the nests of other ducks, apparently as a hedge against brood mortality.

As I pulled into the parking lot of the small lake it only took a moment to spot the redhead, its russet-colored head glowing in the early-morning light. It had taken a companion, a white domestic mallard that it followed closely around the lake. I didn’t have much trouble getting in range as the tame mallard immediately approached me for a handout. The first thing I noticed was the disheveled plumage on the left side of the redhead, just as Kevin had described. I couldn’t ascertain if the wrinkled feathers were a result of injury or illness but it appeared to be in otherwise healthy condition. I fell into position for a low angle shot and waited for the stunning bird to reveal its “mint” side. As it crossed the lake at a perfect angle I made my first images of the species, a redhead in spring plumage. I called Kevin later that evening to thank him for his thoughtful tip, and I made a mental note to make him a nice print of the wayward diver with a red head.

—Story and photo by Danny Brown

We help people discover nature through our online field guide. Visit mdc.mo.gov/node/73 to learn more about Missouri’s plants and animals.