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Pink-Headed Duck Rediscovered?

Posted by: Loren Coleman on April 17th, 2009

One of the more long-standing cryptozoological pursuits among birds is the search for the pink-headed duck (Rhodonessa caryophyllacea), a large diving duck of Asia.

Has a Cryptomundo correspondent Richard Thorns, shown above, snapped a new photo (see below), giving renewed proof of the continued existence of this mysterious avian cryptid?

Does the pink-headed duck still survive? © Richard Thorns, 2009. Used with permission.

This duck’s range was in eastern India, Bangladesh and northern Myanmar, but contemporary opinion is that the species is now probably extinct. Perhaps it is not gone, after all.

First, the standard background on their conservation status:

It was always rare, and the last confirmed sighting was in 1935, although unconfirmed reports from India persisted until the early 1960s. In 1988, Rory Nugent, an American birder, and Shankar Barua of Delhi, reported spotting the elusive bird on the banks of the Brahmaputra. The pair started their quest for the bird at Saikhoa ghat on the north-eastern end of the river on the Indian side of the border. After 29 days of sailing, Nugent said that he saw the pink-headed duck amidst a flock of other waterbirds. However, Nugent’s and Barua’s claimed sighting has not been enough to remove this duck from the list of extinct birds. Reports of pink-headed ducks were for decades received from the largely unexplored Mali Hka and Chindwin Myit drainages in Northern Myanmar, and apparently still continue. While the area is not very well surveyed by scientists, searches have been inconclusive and confusion with the Red-crested Pochard and the Spot-billed Duck has been a common source of supposed Pink-headed Duck sightings. A report on a survey in the Hu Kaung valley in November 2003 concluded that there is sufficient reason to believe that Pink-headed ducks may still exist in Northern Myanmar’s Kachin State, but a thorough survey of the Nat Kaung river between Kamaing and Shadusup in October 2005 failed to find this species; a number of interesting ducks were observed, but they turned out to be Spot-Billed Ducks or White-winged Wood Ducks. Suggestions have been made that it may be nocturnal. Source.

Thus, basically, before 2009, there are two acknowledged unconfirmed sightings, both from remote wetlands of Myanmar. Five Pink-headed Ducks were reported from Mali Kha River near Machanbaw in the state of Kachin in winter of 1965/66. In winter of 2004, a team from Birdlife International reported a probable sighting of this duck from Kachin (Myanmar).

Sightings such as the one in 1988 by Rory Nugent and Shankar Barua are not usually sanctioned. Frankly, I find they are too often dismissively ignored. But how about one with a photograph of the pink-headed duck?

There is some intriguing 2009 news.

Richard Thorns has published and shared his remarkable observation that he may have encountered, sighted, and photographed the pinked-headed duck. In his newly posted, “Anecdotal reports of possible living Pink-headed Duck in the ’98 Inn’ area between Bhamo and Myitkyina, Kachin State, north Myanmar. Jan’-Feb’ 2009,” Thorns shares his notes on his fieldwork.

Thorns decided to search for the bird, and followed the trail of the pink-headed duck into ancient Burma (Myanmar).

I recommend you go to his website to read his diary entries. I will instead concentrate on the photographic evidence he has sent me.

On February 14, 2009, Richard Thorns and his guide were watching a local lake (part of what he called the HunterFarmer lake complex, N 24°23.074’ E 97°13.974’) when he saw a duck and photographed it. Here is what he wrote:

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.

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 from that moment on I did not give the photograph too much attention. It was not until it was suggested to me that the ‘white’ was very far back on the wing – almost not on the wing – and that it 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 again.

Indeed, if these two white ‘flashes of light’ are covered; as soon as this is done then the photograph instantly seems to take on a whole new meaning. But there are 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 seems to extend upward from the belly.

Here is the long shot of how the photograph looks (unfortunately, greatly reduced to fit on this page’s width):

© Richard Thorns, 2009. Used with permission.

But when Thorns increasingly enlarged the image, he revealed what might be the first photograph of a pink-headed duck seen in years:

© Richard Thorns, 2009. Used with permission.

© Richard Thorns, 2009. Used with permission.

So what does a pink-headed duck look like? There, of course, have been paintings, in which the coloring has been vividly depicted.

© Birding International

More significantly, there is a photograph of the pink-headed duck, before they were declared almost certainly extinct.

As far as is known, the last captive pink-headed duck died in 1936 in Delacour’s collection, Cleres, France. This black-and-white photograph was colorized for Frank Todd’s book Natural History of the Waterfowl California: Ibis Publishing, 1996. This was used from Kumar, et.al., Handbook on Indian Wetland Birds and Their Conservation, 2005.

In an exclusive interview with me, Richard Thorns was careful and cautious to point out his reservations.

He writes:

The really big thing about the pic of the duck is that I was mainly, instinctively, looking for the shade of pink – forgetting of course (in 37 C temperatures) that strictly speaking it was not summer, even though in February it felt like it to me. So perhaps the plumage MIGHT be paler, winter plumage? I am no expert on how the Asian seasons affect plumage but if that theory holds water then I suppose it follows that naturally you would not see the deep, rich pink you would instinctively be hoping for. Instead maybe I should be looking for posture.

Also, as I mentioned in the diary, I was sure the two white flashes were evidence of white-winged duck until somebody pointed out it looked like light reflecting off the leaves. THEN I became interested, all right. And then there is that long neck; as far as I know Spot-billed Duck or White-winged Duck (and certainly not Ruddy Shelduck) have this posture? Pygmy goose? But then there is the shade and in any case I don’t think it was any species like that because we would have seen others – we were there for 5 days.

You’ll notice all these question marks after my sentences :-) I suppose I am nervous of giving the impression I am claiming a possible sighting of a Pink-headed Duck (as would be normal, I think). If you could be very kind and state this in your article – and make it plain I am more interested in identifying the mystery duck on the lake (and possibly with direct comparison to the other two pics) than making any other such claim I would be very happy if you could do that. I think the site is a wonderful one and I think, like me you share a passion for just this sort of story and obviously a deep love of cryptozoology in general. I think it appeals to something very deep within us. :-)

Best.

Richard.

PS I also have camcorder footage of the farmer recognising the bird on the flashcard – but please be aware that he had to repeat this moment as, and this is a typical crypto-moment, at the time I thought: “This is gonna amount to nothing” and had the camcorder firmly in my bag to save the battery.

Yes, so, to be clear, no specific claims of seeing a pink-headed duck are being made by Richard Thorns, and I get all the blame for bringing this to the greater cryptozoologically-aware public’s attention. But, the discussion, the wider debate on what Mr. Thorns saw and photographed must begin somewhere, and why not at Cryptomundo, of course. We are not afraid here to call a cryptid duck quest merely a wild goose chase, if that is what this turns out to be. Or to be open-minded about the possible survival of an allegedly extinct species, either.

This historic illustration is from Hume and Marshall’s Game Birds of India, Burmah and Ceylon. Illustration does not show crested appearance of head.

Richard Thorns’ diary conclusions are worthy of posting, for reading here, too:

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

In temperatures nearing 40°c, my own trail finally went cold on the morning of the 20th February 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.

Richard Thorns 2009.

What is in the photograph? Is there new hope for the Pink-headed Duck?

Send your support today:

About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013.


20 Responses to “Pink-Headed Duck Rediscovered?”

  1. Fhqwhgads responds:

    The bird in the new photo seems to have a pink neck and a dark head, but the pink-headed duck had a dark neck and a pink head.

  2. Scott C. responds:

    Not sure how this is going to be taken, but, my wife and I observed what I could swear is that exact bird two days ago, on a pond in NE Wisconsin!

    I said to her, “it’s almost like a cross between a woodpecker and a duck.” We didn’t know what it was.

    So, imagine my surprise to see this.

    Can anybody offer me an explanation? Is there another species in this neck of the woods that could account for what I saw?

  3. fatrobot responds:

    once again proving that cryptozoologists are the worst photographers in the world

  4. Quakerhead responds:

    Looks pink to me.

  5. Loren Coleman responds:

    Scott C. and his wife in Wisconsin probably saw a female of the common merganser (Mergus merganser), for they are often misidentified as a wide variety of birds. It was not a pink-headed duck, of course.

    As to the early complaints about this photograph, it is too bad people cannot be more open to how difficult it is to get photographic evidence of elusive, rare, and shy species – and congratulate the guy for some bravery and curiosity in coming forward.

    BTW, I find that Robert Thorn is a true birder with a cryptozoological interest, as opposed to a cryptozoologist who has an interest in birds.

  6. theprof responds:

    I’d agree with Loren as to species and I’d second his applause of the photographer forwarding the image. It is far, far more difficult to photograph even semi tame birds so wild ones…

    What if this HAD been the bird in question? Okay, non-too brilliant photographically BUT it would have been proof.

    Pity it wasn’t the real thing!

  7. sausage1 responds:

    LOL fatrobot – I wish I’d said that!

  8. cryptidsrus responds:

    I agree with Quakerhead.
    Looks pink to me. Not conclusive, but provocative nevertheless. This is why I would never photograph something “cryptid” but simply observe. Even if it was a perfect clear picture, there would still be naysayers.

  9. richardthorns responds:

    Hi there, this is a message for the prof and others out there to say thank you for your support. To be honest I never went out there to that part of Burma in the expectation of ever getting a PHD on video or a good shot (the anecdotal evidence was really useful in itself), but I appreciated the fact that you understood how difficult it is to photograph such birds in the wild [everything on the lake(s) seemed to immediately flush no matter what we did!].

    The distance shot of the bird on the lake is what you see AFTER full X42 magnification of the camcorder, so you can imagine how far away the bird actually was! The shot wasn’t the best, but it was so fantastic to be out there trying to find this wonderful and notoriously elusive bird.

    All the best.
    Richard.

  10. Fhqwhgads responds:

    The more I look at it, the more I think it is a white neck with a dark head — a color scheme that is common enough. Notice there is a lot of the same shade of “pink” in the vegetation to the left. A little chromatic aberration could cause this.

  11. Averagefoot responds:

    From the blown up image it looks like the duck has white tail feathers or maybe primary feathers and as the first comment noted it also seems to have a pink neck and dark head instead of the other way around.

    On the other hand, if you look closely this might just be an optical illusion. I think the plants and sticks in the forground might actually be what is making the head look dark and the white tail feathers might be a leaf hitting the light or something. It’s really hard to say, hopefully it is a pink-headed duck, it’s always great to find out that a species thought extinct is still alive and well.

  12. SKM responds:

    It’s a white neck (on the edges) with a darker shadow going down the middle.

  13. Munnin responds:

    Having attempted to shoot photos of birds in their natural habitat myself, I can add my corroboration to those here who point out the extremely challenging nature of doing this. I once spent 12 weekends in a row photographing birds in an area which was rich with many different species. Out of hundreds of shots taken, I ended up with ONE very good, usable photo of a white crowned sparrow, LOL! And I agree with Mr. Coleman that the bird observed in Wisconsin was likely to be a merganser.

    It’s really hard to say whether the recent photo by Mr. Thorns shows a pink-headed duck. It’s hard to see the bill, which would be helpful in making the ID. Also, in most of the depictions I see of the pink-headed duck, there is a marked contrast between the dark color of the body and the light color of the neck and head, and there seems to less of a contrast in Mr. Thorns’s photo. That could be due to the quality of the light, and/or the time of year – if the plumage of this species varies seasonally, which may be the case. I don’t know.

    Also, in the subject of this photo the plumage on the “cap” (top of the head) and even the foremost part of the face, including the eye, seems much darker than that of the rest of the head, or the neck. While some individual pink-headed ducks in the painting, and in other depictions, appear to have a dark stripe on the top of the head, the stripe does not really cover the face nor the eyes, as it seems to do in the photo by Mr. Thorns.

    For me, the jury is still out on this one.

  14. catnip kid responds:

    When living in a suburban area that still had deep woods nearby we had a genuine red headed woodpecker take up residence for a year. We called area nature centers around. NO ONE would believe us. Their bird “experts” said that didn’t happen! They said they got plenty of calls like this, and they never believed any of them! This was years ago, before camcorders and such. So, I believe that supposedly extinct duck could just have a few survivors. Ditto for the ivory billed woodpecker.

  15. Fhqwhgads responds:

    Since the original photographer is still available, it should be possible to test the reliability of the photo by borrowing a few duck decoys and photographing them with the same camera at a similar distance, against a similar background, and with the sun in the same relative position. In particular, I’d be interested in seeing if a little red bleeds over onto the image of a white duck.

  16. tom1212 responds:

    really interesting stuff, i was in nagaland last yr n east india and had a good look around for the p h d, no luck but its just the thrill you could get that perfect pic!!(if its still out there) i’d love to think richards photo is a p h d-gives one hope but i dont think it is somehow

  17. richardthorns responds:

    Tom1212

    Did you get ANY info from the locals?

    See the pictures on my blog website? Loren has put the link on this page to the site (he is a gem!).

    I am thinking about the Tanai river or the Nawng Kwin wetlands in the autumn.

  18. paulus responds:

    that is an burmese spotbilled sorry.

  19. Horton responds:

    The bird in the photo looks like a fulvous whistling duck, or other dendrocygna.

    I’m also curious if anyone has verified the original source of the “historical” photo. There is something about it that simply looks dubious — like a collage. At least two of the birds in this photo actually are a type of dendrocygna.

    From the mounted specimens of Pink-headed ducks I’ve seen, they do not have extraordinarily long necks characteristic of tree ducks. Compare:

    with

    Likewise, the Pink-headed duck is said to be confused with spot billed ducks and white winged ducks, which would indicate that they wouldn’t have the same proportions or posture as a tree duck.

  20. richardthorns responds:

    Hi Horton, thanks for your comments – I’m struck by the similarities between the last pic and the coloured in pic. Have you seen the two black and white snaps of Pink-headed Ducks at Foxwarren Park in Surrey? There’s a single bird on a concrete-lined “lake” (very depressing) and a couple of other birds in a second picture. I am off to the Myttha river in January so wish me luck. :-)



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