Pink-headed Duck Expedition Report: Myanmar 2017
By John Hodges, naturalist and wildlife photographer
After a long and exhausting 17-hour journey from Mandalay to the north of Myanmar’s Kachin State Oct. 25, our expedition arrived at Lonton Village and the famous Indawgyi Lake, supposedly the former range and possible home to one of the world’s most endangered bird, the Pink-headed Duck.
Later in the morning, we would start our search, crossing the huge lake and, via longboat, head upstream of the Indawgyi River, through the thick and floating marshes to start with an interview with a witness Richard Thorns had spoken with the previous spring.
[See Richard Thorns’ entry for a breakdown of the interviews]
As this was the first visit for myself, my partner Pilar Bueno, and the eminent naturalist and author Errol Fuller, we were all very excited to witness the biodiversity of this vast water system.
During our journey the whole lake was devoid of birdlife, apart from the occasional small cormorant and a couple of Dabchicks. When we entered the Indawgyi River to head north toward Chaung Wa village — another hour in the longboat — we found a similar lack of bird populations and species. Most notable was the complete lack of ducks — we didn’t see a single duck, and especially not our quarry. We did encounter a few birds, mostly common species seen throughout Asia: pond heron, drongo, purple swamphen, White Wagtail, White-throated Kingfisher and a few raptors souring overhead.
We repeated this journey, which kept us on the water in the hot sun, in the afternoon of Oct. 29. We had slightly better results and one very impressive sighting of Slender-billed, White-rumped and Griffon Vultures feeding near the village on a dead water buffalo. It was a great consolation to see these now-rare birds. Apart from these endangered birds, there was nothing more to write home about. We did see the common species again with a few additions: Green Bee-eater and Darter thrown into the mix. The number of individuals we observed was up on this afternoon’s visit, thankfully.
We did observe half a dozen Ferruginous Duck in the distance while meandering through the river system, and maybe up to 50 Lesser Whistling Ducks, in flight only. Again, the actual lake was absent of resident ducks.
We spent the rest of the days in the field exploring the Elephant Grass around the Naung Khwin wetlands, trying to flush hiding birds. Again, and unfortunately, we did not flush a single duck, or much else, which again was disheartening. We conducted more interviews with local fisherman and a hunter. They all said that the environment was in trouble; that all life, some of which they harvested, was down, year in year out, and they were struggling to survive.
Next we spent an hour in the afternoon afloat in dugout canoes getting lost among the floating islands of reed bed. The idea had been to attach camera traps to tall bamboo poles on the edge of the reed beds in remote pools with duck decoys to attract passing birds.
We soon realized that this would be pointless because nothing was stationary and instead in constant flux. The landscape changed so quickly in front of our eyes. We actually got trapped for a couple of hot hours. And again, we did not see a single duck, nor did we see any amphibians, which I found very shocking.
Not good at all.
The reality is that we know so little about the Pink-headed Duck and while we have more than 50 historical observations of these birds in the marshes, mostly adjacent to thick jungle, hunters are not ornithologists. This was all we had to go on. Now I wonder if these birds were intermittent birds just passing through and bagged by the opportunity rifleman, securing the individuals in the historical record.
At this point I would not be brave enough to say it is impossible that the Pink-headed Duck is hanging on in remote habitats of Myanmar, but not likely where we spent time searching.
Are we disappointed? Obviously yes, but as Errol Fuller said, “it was a glorious failure.” What he means is that we failed to find our object species, but we have new information that could help inform the next expedition.
But all that is for the future. I have a lot of research and hard leg work to do. It’s not going to be easy, but the reward of finding this incredible species would certainly make it worth it.
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