"In the nineteenth century Bengal was a largely unexplored wilderness...The grassland was the home of the tiger... the limpid waters were largely covered by pink and white lotus flowers and were the home of innumerable species of waterfowl which provided another target for sportsmen. The most beautiful and rarest of these... was the Pink-headed Duck."
fig'1. One of the many laminated flashcards (taken of the preserved specimen of Pink-headed Duck in the Paris museum of Natural History), brought to Myanmar and handed out to locals. The picture elicited a positive response.
Tim Halliday, in his book: Vanishing Birds: Their Natural History and Conservation lists three case histories of extinction: the Dodo of the Mascarenes; the Great Auk of the North Atlantic and the Pink-headed Duck of India. Of these three examples, it could be argued that the last is of far greater importance than even the most famous of all extinct birds. The Pink-headed Duck's rarity and beauty; the historical mark it left on the British Raj (as they no doubt boasted in their clubs about the rarest of all bagged specimens, as the sun began to set on the Empire) and finally its rumoured continued existence in Burma, lends itself almost to the realms of the fantastic.
Typically, like the Eskimo curlew and the American Ivory-billed woodpecker, the Indian Pink-headed Duck is an enigma; almost no longer a bird. It exudes emblematic status and stirs passion in equal measure. Although officially classified as extinct, its extant status is hoped-for, argued over, claimed and disputed; its very existence is the subject of much debate, and error-strewn with misidentification and anecdote, given in good faith, romanticised, exaggerated or hoaxed.
So with this in mind it's wise to be very careful when describing any anecdotal evidence regarding this species; the following example has been gained in Myanmar during an excursion into an area between Bhamo and Myitkyina in the far north of Kachin State in 2009. The Pink-headed Duck is so special, so enigmatic, that one has to be very careful not to stray outside strict pragmatism; there is no place for romanticism or emotion when having anything to do with this extraordinary bird.
The following is what happened when I decided to follow the trail of the Pink-headed Duck into Burma, and what happened when I got there. There were, of course, largely blank expressions from the local people as we went upriver, in relation to the I.D. picture I carried with me (which was of a preserved male specimen in the Paris Natural History museum - see fig' 1). This was what I expected, but what I really hoped for, was at least some insight on a local level from fishermen and farmers within the region. And in truth, this was what I was really expecting in total, rather than for any definitive sighting of my own.
Field notes (i) - Saturday Feb' 7th 2009. Rangoon.
I was very fortunate to make contact in Rangoon with Tony Htin Hla from BANCA (the Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association), due to the kind co-operation of Jonathan Eames from BirdLife International.
It became evident from talking to Tony that the notorious secrecy and paranoia that the Burmese military ‘Government’ is infamous for, is unfortunately well-justified. In truth, every traveller with high expectations carries the hope that such talk is exaggerated, out of date or simply wrong for whatever reason. Indeed, I was cheerily told at Rangoon airport by a tour guide upon arrival, that the Tanai river was indeed accessible without a permit.
Of course, the Tanai river is not accessible without permission, and neither were the following regions: the Nat Kaung river, Kamaing town, Mogaung Chaung, the Nawng Kwin wetlands and Machanbaw/ Putao.
This is not to say permission cannot be granted; the fee is extortionate, however, and one must also reconcile this with the knowledge that the fee goes to the treasury of the military junta. The permit takes around a month to ‘process’ which, conveniently, goes two or three days over the 28 day tourist visa granted by the consulate. This visa is extendable in itself, although for a limited amount of time; nothing, it appears, is completely impossible in Burma.
(Naturally, where Government-approved excursions are concerned these administrative difficulties appear not to be so great a problem).
This really left me with only one option: the single remaining area remaining ‘open’ to foreigners who carry no additional permit to the tourist visa (although they must not stay at non-government licensed hostels or take non-government approved tours). This is the area between between Bhamo and Myitkyina up the vast Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) river, and which takes in a village in between the two points (Talawgyi village).
Although I had a certain disappointment in not having ready access to the above locations, I was very keen to visit the area north of Bhamo for the following reasons:
Field notes (ii) - Saturday Feb' 14th - Bhamo.
In Bhamo, one of the more well-known and respected occupants of the town is a local called Sein Win (who was soon to be my guide). He is an inventor, semi-celebrity and remarkably skilled engineer, famous in the town for constructing a James Bond-style working helicopter (that currently sits in his living room – minus its roters). He is also planning to (literally) launch a fast-boat service from Mandalay to Bhamo – taking 5-6 hours – using Everglades-style fan-driven cruisers.
Sein Win can be found by asking at the Friendship Hotel (the biggest in Bhamo), although it should be remembered that the Myanmar government is very unhappy about non-licensed tours, and as such it’s best to tell the staff at the Friendship you have simply heard about him (and his helicopter) via Lonely Planet, rather than engage in any talk of journeying out from the town, or where you will go. The staff will be happy to pass on directions, or give out a map of Bhamo that lists his home.
I hired Sein Win as my interpreter for $10.00 per day (2009 prices) and further hired his neighbour, Po Se, for a further $30.00 per day. This was an excellent rate as it got me a boat, guide and interpreter all in one (Po Se speaks no English), plus all fuel costs, a trip to the best lakes in the 98 Inn area, an extensive knowledge of that country (Po Se used to be a farmer in that region), accommodation (the boat) and – best of all – a trustworthy team whom (a) were passionate and knowledgeable about the area and very eager to help with the search for the Pink-headed Duck and (b) unconcerned about taking “a foreigner” on a non-approved tour.
To get to the 98 In area, you travel north up the Irrawaddy river for about 12kms, and then, upon seeing a large pagoda on your right, head up the adjoining (Tapin) river beneath the footbridge there. The lake area lies around 15kms upriver.
This was to be the permanent site for the boat; the presence of army checkpoints further upriver made any further progress unwise. In any case, this was the preferred point for Po Se to moor, very accessible to the lakes.
fig’ 2. Moored up temporarily on the Tarpein river (Sein Win is out of shot questioning a local). The idyllic scene belies the fact that, on this stretch of the river, at least, our inquiries regarding the Pink-headed Duck’s current status were fruitless.
It was here that something of a breakthrough occurred. A local farmer by the name of Kyaw Liang told Sein Win that he recognised the bird in our photo; he had seen an unnusual duck with a pink head on one of the more distant lakes, around 10 days previously. I asked Sein Win to ask the farmer if he could describe the lake to our boatman and guide and, when he did, we found that Po Se also knew of this lake. The farmer added that he saw the bird ‘around evening’, between 17.00 and 18.00 hrs.
As it turned out, we staked out the wrong lake. This was to be an early example of the many translation problems that were to plague my trip to Myanmar; on this occasion we met up with a group of young girls labouring and collecting wood, who mentioned, on looking at our photo, that we would certainly ‘see many ducks’ on a lake they knew of (note: A lake, not THE lake). This meant a very hot and exhausting day hacking though thick briars and thorns with machetes and seeing nothing but Pochard, Spot-billed Duck and White-winged Duck, amongst many others.
On our return (and still, of course, thinking we had gone to the original lake!) I rather crestfallenly asked Sein Win to point out to the farmer that he must have been mistaken, and had described Ruddy Shelduck (the most obviously gregarious candidate) to us. I was surprised to find no resigned shrug of his shoulders in response; instead he told us that he knew the area and its birds very well, and that this bird’s head and neck was a very definite pink. He looked again at our pictures, rejected the Ruddy Shelduck as a possible misidentification, and also stated that unlike the Ruddy Shelduck (a bird he was familiar with), the duck he saw was ‘only ever on its own’.
The confusion in translation sorted out on the boat that evening, it was decided to get up early the next morning to go to the lake the farmer had described to us, before sunrise. The farmer's message was reinforced in our minds and he seemed clear in what he saw. We were also armed with the knowledge that our lead, our lake, was still unrevealed to us.
Tuesday Feb' 14th.
The sun rises in Myanmar (at that point in Kachin State, in any case) at around 6.55am, so we woke and dressed for the trip at 5am, to set off after coffee at 6am. It was hard to know what to wear; it was tempting to dress well and warm, for it was bitterly cold at night with zero cloud cover, but we knew we would suffer for it later when the sun rose over such difficult terrain; by 11am the temperature would be in the late 20°s and would rise to a scorching 34-5° around midday (Rangoon a month later would be measured by me at a broiling 37°c). Indeed, we all eyed up, in the freezing cold, the heavy bottles of chilled water and lemon tea, our teeth chattering and thinking of excuses for leaving it (although mercifully reason prevailed every time).
fig’ 3. The sun rises over one of the lakes of the 98 Inns area, north of Bhamo in Kachin State. It is approximately 06.55am.
We approached many lakes on our way to the Farmer Lake, all of which proved negative for any wildfowl. In a way, this made our task easier because with so many reports suggesting that (a) the Pink-headed Duck displayed nocturnal, or near nocturnal habits and (b) that the farmer reported seeing the bird at: ‘between five and six pm’ and ‘in the evening’, the likelihood was that most if not all of the wildfowl seen in daylight the previous day would be roosting except for the Pink-headed Duck.
As the sun came up we gradually observed more wildfowl; unfortunately, one very successful approach to a large lake was spoiled by a gunshot, which flushed all wildfowl without exception.
Later on, we were to meet up with the hunter and his son, whom we questioned further. It transpired he was a non-local hunter who had come to the area some time ago in order to shoot game. The hunter was not familiar with Pink-headed Duck, but he told us his son had returned from a fishing trip on a lake and told him he had seen an unfamiliar duck with a pink head. This was, according to him, ‘about six days ago’ and was seen from around 15.00 hrs through (presumably sporadically) to twilight, as he was packing up: ‘in evening’. The hunter added that if he had had the sighting himself he would have shot the duck. The lake the bird was seen on was, we learned, the same lake that the farmer described to us a few days before.
Immediately re-christening our lake from the Farmer Lake to the HunterFarmer Lake, We determined from then on to turn our attention only to that single lake, only holding brief resumes of the other lakes we came across (and would come across) on our way to this location. We resolved to observe dawn watches through to midday, then hike back to our boat for lunch. We would then use the three hours to carry out our activities: boiling river water in order to prepare our favourite chilled lemon tea (which Po Se was especially enthusiastic about), washing clothes and swimming in the river and reading, until about 15.00pm. We would then prepare for the trek to the HunterFarmer lake to arrive for around17.00pm. This would then give us around two hours to observe the lake.
It should be noted here that the vegetation had changed dramatically from the vegetation near the mooring-place. The scenario there was: ploughed open fields, baked hard by the sun, and growing crops, no visible signs of life on the ox-bows, plus general signs of human disturbance. However, as we neared the HunterFarmer lake the habitat changed to waist-high grasses, clear pools and small lakes and thickly-bordering forest. Perhaps most interesting of all was the thought that occurred to me as we walked: the 98 Inns area obviously took its name for a reason; how many of these waist-high grasses were (perhaps in as short a time as a few weeks before) once nestling in clear pools with dense reeds and shallow water? How many classic examples of Pink-headed Duck territories and habitat had come and gone? Any future return to this area, I pledged to myself, would be undertaken closer to the end of the rainy season (possibly late November to early December) when the lakes were fuller.
fig’ 4. The HunterFarmer lake. This lake is one of the furthest from the Tapin river, and certainly shows little sign of human disturbance. Two independent witnesses claimed a sighting of what may have been Pink-headed Duck on this lake.
The Northeastern border of the HunterFarmer lake is a huge forest of Banyan trees and thick, broad-leaved vegetation and vine; not quite dense enough to be called jungle, perhaps, but thick forest, certainly. This area consisted of three lakes, close enough to be identified as one single mass, yet separate enough for Po Se to be able to tell them apart and identify which one of them the farmer saw ‘his’ duck on. This lake supported White-winged Duck, Spot-billed Duck, Mallard, Red-crested Pochard and Ruddy Shelduck amongst many others (a Northern Pintail flushed within touching distance of us as we walked through the high grass that separated the lakes).
Of the three lakes, the original HunterFarmer lake supported the largest number of birds, and lake 3 was around a kilometre from it, with lake 2 (a large, open-spaced shallow lake) separating them in the middle. Lake 2 was large, lagoon-like and consistently virtually free of waterfowl (something we puzzled over) It was very difficult to observe waterfowl on lake 3, as there was only one observation point to use, apart from a very wide, open and sandy bay that inevitably scared the birds away no matter how we approached. But the observation point that we could use was next to useless, as dense foliage obscured all but 5-10% of the lake.
Again, it should be noted for future use that to the Northwest of lake 3 is a vast lagoon which supported egrets, buffalo and a huge variety of birds. This is an excellent lagoon to birdwatch generally, and would of course be worth taking in for possible Pink-headed Duck surveillance, but it naturally lacks the intimacy of the Pink-headed Duck’s supposedly preferred haunts.
Despite the lack of wildfowl activity on lake 2, it was on this lake in the afternoon that I observed a duck from a distance of perhaps 0.25 miles. I was drawn to its pink colouration and what appeared to be a dark stripe on the throat. There was also a sharp contrast in colouration between its head and dark body, and I was especially struck by its very long, almost serpentine neck. I was not close enough to see if the maxilla showed the Pink-headed Duck’s steeply-inclinating, rather goose-like silhouette against the water, nor did the bird make any sound.
(copyright exists for images (i) & (ii). See endnotes for credits).
fig’ 5. Looking for colour, stance or miracle? The mystery duck (now identified as Spot-billed Duck), seen on the HunterFarmer lake. n°2., a lake largely free of waterfowl.
I took a picture of the duck simply because of the lack of other wildfowl activity on Lake 2 (it's thought that the Pink-headed Duck displayed non-gregarious behaviour patterns), but I felt sure that it would not amount to much; for me, the above features of colour, contrast, long-necked posture and possible throat-stripe were initially outweighed by what seemed to be a white flash on the wing, and to be truthful I thought: "Spot-bill" and gave the matter no more thought. It was not until it was suggested to me that the ‘white’ may be sunlight reflecting off two leaves to the right of the branch that vertically crosses the bird’s body, that I began to take an interest in the picture again.
Indeed, if these two white ‘flashes of light’ are covered; as soon as this is done then the photograph instantly seemed to take on a whole new meaning; covering the white area leaves a large duck with a dark body and pale head, with what seems to eb a throat-stripe. But there were other caveats: the dark area around the head, for example, could be taken as shadow, which strengthens the case for an un-mottled pink head, but at the same time debunks the dark throat-stripe which seemed to extend upward from the breast.
Later, this bird would be positively identified as Spot-billed Duck, and actually is a classic example of how many, if not most - or unfortunately possibly all, "sightings" of Pink-headed Duck are misidentifications. Certainly the Spot-billed Duck must surely be blamed for such misidentifications, as there is certainly a definitive contrast in the plumage from the breast upwards, but in the case of another lead (our original lead, there was more to follow)...
Thursday Feb' 19th.
This day was notable because of a further conversation we had with Kyaw Liang in the evening. As was usual, we had stayed at the lake until it was dark before making our way (not easily) back; we hoped, as usual, to record the sounds of wildfowl even after it was impossible to see.
Beside his fire, Kyaw Liang was happy to talk further to us. It transpired he had seen the bird he reconciled with our Pink-headed Duck ID picture on two separate occasions that year. The first was around 40 days previously; he had observed it on a lake much nearer to his home. He said that once people arrived to use the water from the lake for rice production, the bird had flown away. He had then seen it again on the lake we now knew as the HunterFarmer lake.
fig’ 6. From l-r: (i) Tracker and boatman Po Se, and interpreter Sein Win; (ii) the original lake upon which the first sighting of a possible Pink-headed Duck was made (prior to being encroached-upon for rice production); (iii) Kyaw Liang (and son), a local farmer who claimed both sightings.
As I said earlier in my introduction, I would rather not post this report at all than stray into any realms of imagination or exaggeration. But what Kyaw Laing and the hunter said they saw should at least be considered pragmatically, to dispel the following caveats:
For future travellers to this region, the following should perhaps be noted to prevent problems with Immigration and to make it easier to travel to the region:
Sein Win is very relaxed about this article going onto the WWW. He thinks, as I do, that the financial benefits to him and to his family outweigh any possible risk. I can add to this and say that I also feel that government officials would have to be interested enough in the Pink-headed Duck (which they aren’t) in order to Google the right keywords: Pink-headed Duck; Sein Win; Bhamo etc into the search engine.
To ensure a trouble-free visit to first make contact with Sein Win, it would be best to go to his house directly. The directions are: go out of the Friendship Hotel and turn right. Travel along the road until you get to the football stadium on your right (the scene of Sein Win’s failed flight in his helicopter), and you will also see an obvious junction in the road. Go straight on, and just past this junction you will see two tracks on your left. The second one has what seems to be a terrace of shops to its right. This is the track to go down and Sein Win’s house is the first big house on the right. Don’t forget he is a well-known figure and you can just ask for him by name once down this track.
To ensure a trouble-free journey to the lakes, the most obvious way would be to go by cargo boat (which do not keep passenger records and are unmonitored by the government). This is far less obvious than publicly leaving on Po Se’s boat accompanied by Sein Win! If you can arrange a time with Sein Win at his house, you can travel light to the riverbank and get a ride upriver on a cargo boat as far as the pagoda (on the right that marks the beginnings of the Tapin river), then simply disembark at the pagoda and wait for Sein Win to arrive on Po Se’s boat.
A trip out to the lakes that lasts from Monday morning to Friday evening can be explained away to officials by using the following story: you took a cargo boat to Talawgyi, arriving in Talawgyi at 10am on Tuesday. You then lazed around in Talawgyi until the middle of the afternoon and then took another boat down to Bhamo. Throughout the trip you slept on the cargo boat at all times. At 2009 prices, you should quote 15,000 Kyat (or 15 USD) upriver and the lesser fare (with the current) of 8,000 Kyat (8 USD) downriver. You should avoid saying you stayed in a hotel in Talwagyi; they will check with the hotel.
fig’ 7. The 98 Inns area – a small speck on the vast and considerably untouched interior of Kachin State.
The feeling that I first experienced, when I first received that positive reaction to my I.D picture in a field north of Bhamo, is something that’s going to be very difficult to forget. Likewise, when approaching a lake that you know is largely undisturbed, and seeing ducks on it and knowing right there and then and at that very moment you could soon be making history is, again, something hard to erase from memory. This, I suppose, is what field trips are all about. The collection of scientific data, field notes and shots are all of paramount importance, of course, but it’s equally important to remember that, behind all of that, even today people still search for the lost Dutchman’s mine in the deserts of North America. In Burma, on the trail of the Pink-headed Duck and amongst better people than me, I learned it was okay to feel that way
My own trail finally went cold on a warm February morning in 2009; the Pink-headed Duck had escaped yet again. What has always struck me the most about this incredible bird is, I suppose, the fact that for so long in the first part of the 20th Century it had been considered extinct, only to reappear a few years down the line. But it has been a long time now; the gap is widening, unlike the small gap of ten feet that would take the stuffed Pink-headed Duck specimen out of the extinction room at the Paris Natural History museum and back into the area of extant birds. It is a very long ten feet! So here it ends; the heart is big, the spirit is still ever-willing, but the Pink headed Duck remains as tantalizingly and infuriatingly elusive as ever.
Videoblog. I was to return a year later, and this time I was in Burma on the tail end of the rainy season, again in Kachin State, but this time further north, taking in Myitchina, Indawgyi lake, Sinbo, Bhamo (Banmaw) on the trail of the pink-headed duck. Everywhere was soaking wet and brown before the clouds parted, but there was an amazing, curious encounter at a Sinbo marsh and a tantalizing tale in an area north of Banmaw. For this account, please see what happened by going to: 2010 Search. To see the videoblog of the search discussed on this page: The Flying Needle, click here.
Richard Thorns 2009.
Fig 5 (i) © Tim Halliday. Colour Plate IV (Pink-headed Ducks) from: Vanishing Birds; their Natural History and Conservation. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. New York 1978.
Fig 5 (ii) ©Peter Shouten. Colour Plate. (male and female Pink-headed Duck) from: A Gap In Nature; Discovering the World’s Extinct Animals. Tim Flannery and Peter Shouten. William Heinemann. London. 2001.
 Andrew W. Tordoff. [from] The historical and current status of Pink-headed Duck Rhodonessa caryophyllacea in Myanmar. ©BirdLife International 2008.