Which One's Pink?

The Search for the Pink-headed Duck in Burma.

"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."


 Khamti town and the restricted wetlands further down the Chindwin river. January 2014.

fig'1. A rare taxidermed drake pink-headed duck in the Musee de Parc de Jardin, Paris


This winter (from January 12th to January 18th 2014) saw a fourth search for surviving pink-headed duck in Myanmar. This followed recent unconnected reports of the species in two specific and separate areas.

The overall general area of interest this time was Nagaland in the north-west of the country; an area previously un-surveyed up until now. Nagaland is interesting in that the border with India runs straight through the area, which is why “Nagaland, Myanmar” is often confused with “Nagaland, India.” Consequently, this remote area actually borders India on the western side of the Naga hills, and this is promising because Nagaland, India certainly boasts historical records of pink-headed duck. The area surveyed was a fairly large area, some 20kms by 5 kms on the east side of the Chindwin river and 20 kms by 1 km on the west (Indian) side, near the border.

Putting it all on Pink: 2014 Search. 

We knew that the last pink-headed duck was reliably seen in the wild around 1947 (although 1936 in Bihar, India is also mentioned). But here in north Myanmar we had great hopes because the area was un-surveyed and showed great promise. The geographical location of the search area was in Sagaing Division around Hlamanthi wildlife sanctuary where the habitat was untouched; the Hukoung Valley tiger reserve lies further to the north and ‘caps’ Sagaing Division and neighbouring Kachin state.

Lastly, there were in the area credible and recent reports of pink-headed duck. We intended to investigate these in addition to the survey.

The area had 4 variations of ecosystem suitable for pink-headed duck, and this comprised: (1): Elephant grass in excess of 25 feet, bordered by thick forest; (2): Shaded jungle pools; (3): Wide flooded grassland, bordered by jungle forest, and (4): USA-style flooded tree-swampland.  We did dawn watches on most of these and dusk watches on them all. We observed: mallard, cotton teal; red crested pochard; ruddy shelduck; earasian teal; spot-billed duck; ferruginous duck; pintail; lesser whistling duck but no pink-headed duck. There is some new information: some very significant information from the far north that Ko Lay win obtained at the end.

We followed up leads on two anecdotes mentioned earlier: one was the trapping and killing of a single pink-headed duck at the Thaxi village, plus a rather more credible report of 3 pink-headed ducks seen much further downriver.

Sunday 12th January.

N26° 00’ 07.7”

E95° 40’19.6”

489 feet above sea level.

Myself and my guide, Lay win flew from Mandalay to Khamti, to arrive at midday. After checking into the local guesthouse we visited a wetland on the outskirts of Thaxi village to a second area, Nyarmitar.

Translating, Lay win explained that SST Tourism had sent pictures of pink-headed duck to Thaxi village, following a report by a fisherman that it was on the Nyarmitar wetland two years ago he encountered a single regular wildfowl visitor that he claimed was pink-headed duck. We found that the fisherman was absent from Thaxi, and working in the goldmines, so we were unable to verify this account further, but we learned that he had succeeded in catching the bird and had then killed it for food.


LOCATION I. WETLAND I. A silent land of clear water, towering elephant grass, lilies and lotus flowers. No forest surround, but remote countryside and the distant Naga hills. A fisherman claimed a killing of a single pink-headed duck on this wetland.

We took boats and thoroughly surveyed the wetland. Initially I expected a mass of low-lying grasslands, studded with clear pools, but in fact the whole area was one big wetland in itself. We experienced no ducks except a distant flock. Instead, the area showed various species of freshwater cormorant, egret and purple swamphen. We hoped that this was an isolated incident, but we also launched an early-morning watch the following day and this only yielded a single ruddy shelduck, probably from the Chindwin banks, and so we had to conclude that, whilst this single isolated duck-incident chimed with the scarcity of pink-headed duck, we thought such an event very unlikely. It should be appreciated that the Burmese have no binoculars, are not birders and generally regard ducks as food and are also likely to misidentify. We therefore concluded that the duck killed and eaten was likely to have been a pochard.

Monday13th January.

N25° 50’ 53.7”

E95° 35’33.1”

451 feet above sea level.

Following the first wetland stake-out, we hired a boat and ventured two hours down the Chindwin river to the Mine Naung village. Here we were made very welcome by the villagers whose children loved the crayons and storybooks brought from Mandalay. In the evening we were visited by a gold-dealer who gave us a very acceptable price for some beautiful nuggets straight from the banks of the river – the purest gold possible.


fig'2. Gold nugget from the Chindwin river.

Tuesday14th January.

After breakfast we ventured from Mine Naung village to the 99 wetland area. The Burmese explain their wetland territories not by hectares or by square metres, but rather by the amount of wetlands involved. Of course the maximum number is transient and very fleeting, because when the waters are high the lakes blend together, and when the levels are low the smaller pools dry out in the sun.

Consequently there were three lakes that sported environments that the locals thought worth investigating. To get there we had to endure walks along buffalo-trails in thick bamboo jungle, and where the bamboo crossed over the ‘paths’ we had to walk in an agonizing crouched position (in the intense heat) with the bamboo snatching at our backpacks, caps, glasses and anything else possible. After an hour we arrived at LOCATION II. WETLAND I and found good spots for observation of wildfowl.

N25° 51’ 32.2”

E95° 36’ 07.1”

450 feet above sea level.

N.E of village. 45 mins walk.


LOCATION II. WETLAND I. Setting off at 9am, we trek towards the hidden wetlands. The first lake was small, yet ideal; this second one (in more or less the same location) was our first promising wetland.

We observed spot-billed duck, moorhen and coot, all under the watchful, menacing, dragon-like flight of a large caspian tern, indicating good fish stocks. This was a lively lake, and in places too lively with disturbance from water buffalo that chased away most of the birds. There were no other ducks apart from spot-billed ducks. After lunch we resolved to move on.

LOCATION II. WETLAND II was much more promising. This was our first departure from classic pink-headed duck haunts and more towards the kind of habitat that sported sightings in India in Bihar state and Assam (and possibly the deep forests of Bhutan although this evidence is patchy). It was a shaded jungle lake, very deep, it seemed with thick sucking mud underfoot where the lake spilled out. This meant that getting near the lake edge at any place was difficult and with little viewpoints due to the thick bamboo vegetation. The locals and Lay win scooted up trees to observe, and we then cut a place out in the foliage to reveal all parts of the lake. Other parts were only accessible by crossing waist-deep tributaries and / or spillways which was very unpleasant. We were rewarded by good sightings of cotton teal and one bird in amongst them that that had Lay win puzzled in that it bore all the hallmarks of cotton teal, but instead sported a yellow underside on the bill and had no colour on the speculum. The bird was not in any of our books and Lay win plans to try to get further information on a wider basis at a later date upon his return to Yangon. 

N25° 51’ 00.5”

E95° 36’51.4”

429 feet above sea level.

25 mins walk from Lake 1.


LOCATION II. WETLAND II. The unpleasant mud and brackish, leech-infested waters of the jungle pool offered cotton teal but an otherwise lonely environment. However, dusk watches were a must.

Wednesday15th January.

The next morning we crossed into the jungle once again to check out LOCATION II. WETLAND III. We all agreed upon finding it that this was the best environment for possible pink-headed duck. The area was warm and soothing, an idyllic paradise of short-to-medium grasslands, flooded with clear streams and pools and bordered by thick forest, from which monkeys hooted gently as the morning mists cleared. We were tremendously excited by this spot and felt sure we were in the best place.

N25° 50’ 05.7”

E95° 36’38.0”

483 feet above sea level.

SE of village. 35 mins walk.


LOCATION II. WETLAND III. … deserves four photographs all to itself! If there ever was the best place to search for pink-headed duck in Myanmar…!


… this surely had to be it! Here the grasslands hide ferruginous duck, Eurasian teal and pintail, plus numerous species of darter, egret, freshwater cormorant, hornbill etc.

Certainly we felt our optimism was not misplaced. Far from it, we were convinced that there was a lot to be said for observation to the letter! And, given that in a lot of accounts the pink-headed duck “comes only by evening,” we felt it important to spend the whole day here in this environment until dark. This made getting back to the village through the jungle a little unnerving, but Lay win took a local villager to stake out LOCATION II. WETLAND II  for a day-to-dusk watch, and I set up to do the same at our current location. We did so, but we observed not too much difference in bird activity as the light faded, except for the arrival of herons from elsewhere in the forest, and the increased activity of kingfishers as fish began to stir for the night.

Thursday16th January.

We had arranged to travel downriver on this day because we still had yet to investigate the second of our two credible anecdotal sightings. I had doubts about this: for pink-headed duck to show on a river would have been a departure from all past accounts. However, it was the best report we had. However, I was taken ill in the night and could not travel so Lay win took it upon himself to go and then report back if the signs were good. I then staked out LOCATION II. WETLAND III  for a further day. However, this yielded no new sightings and for the first time, a lone Burmese traveller passed me by: a woman carrying firewood. I lamented the fact that Lay win was not with me; I had a picture of the pink-headed duck with me but I couldn’t even instruct my village local to ask her if she knew of the species. Lay win returned late whilst I was asleep and in the morning we spoke about what he had learned.

Friday17th January.

Lay win reported promising news. The area where there had been the second pink-headed duck report (three birds on a tributary to the Chindwin) had been spoiled by gold-mining, but Lay win’s boatman apparently knew of a second area of lakes further downriver.

I felt well enough on the day to go downriver to the areas and we stopped at LOCATION III. WETLAND I. approximately one hour downriver.

N25° 43’ 46.9”

E95° 27’52.6”

LOCATION III. WETLAND I. was a large section of interlinking lakes. Wildfowl was scare here and there was no recognition of pink-headed duck.

The lake yielded little in the way of any birds. Lay win decided it would be best to wait until later in the morning when there would be local fishermen in the area. We took out a boat and stopped a young boy who told us he had never seen any bird that looked like pink-headed duck. This, too, was the conclusions of the other fishermen.

It was at this point that I really began to question in more depth the veracity of what we were doing; the mystery of the disappearance of pink-headed duck deepened and took on a whole new meaning. Clearly, Burmese farmers and fishermen had seen something when they reported their accounts; they had described habits the birds were known to have; they told of behavioural aspects that we know of; they knew of its scarcity and they commented that it was “beautiful and very rare.” So where was it?

We had one area left to try and that was a new environment: this was a further two miles downriver and was a brackish deep-forest swamp containing Louisiana-style flooded trees, probably permanently semi-submerged.

N25° 40’ 13.0”

E95° 24’28.0”

393 feet above sea level.


LOCATION III WETLAND II. … With little sign of life, we switched from the larger lakes to a smaller area, after hearing ducks calling.


LOCATION III WETLAND II. … Tucked away on an island, a family of lesser whistling ducks signify life. Given the remoteness of the area and habitat, Lay win observed wryly: “they should be pink-headed ducks.”

We observed spectacular birdlife but no sign of pink-headed duck; there was simply a small family of lesser whistling duck on a small island, leading my guide to observe the fact that there was no reason for the birds not to be pink-headed duck. It really rather echoed what I was earlier thinking.

Saturday18th January.

This day brought a return to LOCATION II. for a dawn watch before heading back to Khamti. We were told (a little late in the day) that there were actually two further lakes that existed in the area, so Lay win decided to observe these lakes and I went back to WETLAND III  where I waited patiently for the mists to clear around 8am.

There was better luck this time in that the wildfowl was more plentiful, yet, again, no trace of pink-headed duck. Had her mate not been present, the stiff-necked posture of a female pintail in the mist would have caused some excitement.

LOCATION II WETLAND II. … Dead-centre in the shot, a female pintail adopts a stiff-necked yet false impression of pink-headed duck. 

The ferruginous duck and pintail were much more active and much nearer, but there was no other indication of anything that would not be found elsewhere in Myanmar.  Lay win joined us back at the village at midday with no more news regarding the final two lakes; one was similar to LOCATION II. WETLAND I : it was a wide lagoon-like lake, and the last one was a small jungle pool similar to  LOCATION II. WETLAND II.


When we went back to Khamti it was with a crestfallen atmosphere in the boat. We knew we had gone to all the best possible locations in that part of Myanmar, yet there was no trace of pink-headed duck. It was if it had never existed at any time. We expected the remoteness of the area to help us, yet it was as if the improvement in location was hindering us! I think this can be explained partly because of the paradox that surrounds searching in remote areas: in more densely-populated areas there are more people to ask, but equally this means the greater the human encroachment there is upon the area. Yet the further away from humans we placed ourselves, the more we found there was nobody to ask! Perhaps we simply have to learn how to strike this hardest of balances.

And if this is the case, once that balance has been established, it next has to be in the right area! Because we really don't know much about pink-headed duck, we can only hit and hope; there seems no other way of searching. At the very least we have to hope that after we cope with the first paradox in the above paragraph, all 4 of the following criteria then have to come together:

location (with regard to human intervention).

location (with regard to ecosystem).

time of year.

time of day.

Lastly, this, of course, makes the species even harder to locate: usually any bird can be found within reason if we know something of that bird's behaviour: what it does, what it eats, where it goes etc, broadly speaking. With the pink-headed duck we simply don't know! We simply don't have sufficient knowledge enough about it to make informed decisions.

Jonathan Eames once exclaimed in frustration: "If it's there, why can't we find it!" and I know how he feels! We were in a perfect location for the birds, and we must ask ourselves at this stage if the species really IS extinct! But this does not chime well with the many reports of the birds in Myanmar, plus the accuracy of reports that really do seem very credible. Plus there is the matter of the strange and sudden manner of its disappearance, plus the fact the species was known for long periods of absence in the past. It really is a moving target, but I reiterate, our chosen habitats, large area of survey, and expertise of guides and locals lead us to assume three options only:

(1) We didn't see it because it is extinct.

(2) We didn't see it because it is not extinct, but it was not in the area.

(3) We didn't see it because it is not extinct, and it was in the area, but secretive. 

The conundrum of the so-called “Golden Duck.”

I want to raise an interesting theory: we understandably look for pink-headed duck continually in certain areas that we feel give us the best advantage, either through a known and documented past history, or through modern recollection and story. But can we apply this to a much wider scale? Consider: I used to think that it was very important to look in Myanmar because there were certain areas that matched the ancient and long disappeared habitats that once existed in Eastern India (around Calcutta), but the fact that the bird has disappeared altogether from such excellent Myanmar habitats leads me to ask: is it possible that the bird has simply cleared itself from the habitat itself? Are we looking in the wrong place?
I say this because our last information  concerns a people north of a village called Chipwe in Kachin State that speak of a very rare duck that they find in mountain pools (lowland lakes?) that they refer to as the "Golden Duck". Not however, because of its colouration (I think it would probably make the bird ruddy shelduck or our old spoiler foe, the red-crested pochard or, as has even been suggested, mandarin duck). Myself and Lay win believe that the "golden" refers to the birds' status because the people speak of it as being very beautiful and very rare, and they say it only occurs in very small numbers, usually in twos They have recently killed two of the birds, and Lay win is attempting to examine evidence of when this event occurred. If it was a recent killing, he will ask if there is any evidence of surviving bones or feathers. I have (understandably) received many UK offers of DNA testing, as Burmese techniques are of course incompatible regarding this.

I am sending all my research on pink-headed duck to Lay win in Yangon and in doing so I have to accept it may not be me who rediscovers the pink-headed duck. But the fact that Lay win is Burmese and can go anywhere he wishes, has excellent contacts and expertise, and (after meeting me!) is now captivated and seduced by something he previously never gave much thought to; all this means he is as keen to locate pink-headed duck as me, and of course I will help him all I can. Naturally, I will keep up contact with any new information that comes to light, but for now the pink-headed duck remains - sadly - as enigmatic and as elusive as ever.

Videoblog. This unique habitat - previously un-surveyed - was an incredibly exciting experience, not least because for the first time I had seen with my own eyes the incredibly well-preserved habitat that represented so uniquely the long-vanished ecosystems around Calcutta, India, where the pink-headed duck was once to be found; where Orissa, Bihar, West Bengal and other states once yielded identical environments, now flattened, concreted and farmed into oblivion.  The question now was... where was the pink-headed duck most likely to be found? Of all the Burmese researchers at various organisations across the world, it would not be Tony Htin Hla, BANCA's chairman, who was tragically to pass away between the expeditions. His loss hit me hard: Tony was a true friend to be and a true friend to birds and their conservation in Myanmar and in Asia elsewhere. He is sadly missed, and it was partly in tribute to him and to his mempry that I decided to travkel to an area upriver from Mandalay, some 180 kms from that city, to an area he had seen on the map that seemed very promising. To share the frustrations, dangers and delights, please go to 2015 Search. To see the videoblog of the search discussed on this page, Putting it all on Pink, see here 


Richard Thorns. November 2014.