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."

 Further searches for reports of possible living Pink-headed Duck in Burma, incorporating: Indawgyi lake, Sinbo and 98 Inn' lake area. Sept'-Oct' 2010. 

 

 

fig'1. "They stay only in couple (sic)... a female and male." A bona fide male Pink-headed Duck from The Wildfowl of South-east Asia, claimed as one of the birds on the lagoon by Kyaw Liang in December 2009. 

Introduction.

Although the long-term oppression of its people never seems to change and the country seems to freeze in time, Burma by contrast is never entirely predictable. So I was happy to jump out of my taxi after suddenly recognising the guesthouse from my previous trip as we meandered through the rain in downtown Rangoon. A little piece of stability was very welcome!

Gone was the heat of the last trip; this was the tail end of the rainy season and the water was everywhere! There was a reason for my being here at this time: lurking in my mind had been the fact that most sightings of living Pink-headed Duck in the past in both India and Burma had been during the cooler months and during the breeding season. But what of the other months? This was a mystery to me, and one that might just glean rewards! Somebody had to check out any possible activity during the wet season and, I reasoned, it may as well be me.

The Net Closes: 2010 Search. 

Turning up at the British Consul, hoping for advice about getting permission to travel further north than Myitkyina, the vision I had of a consoling arm around my shoulders and a gruff sort of: "all in this together, old chap!" version of events never really materialised. In fact, the opposite was true: I was recommended a number of expensive Government-run and tourist-themed Travel Agencies and tours, plus a stern warning not to go anywhere without telling anyone first! Upset at having drawn attention to myself, my ideas and my planned route (including having given over my passport details), I fled for the street.

By contrast, the perceived bloodsucking Myanmar Tourist Office (MTT) turned out to be the exact opposite, and could not have been more helpful; I was served by a lovely lady called Jackie who loudly called everyone in that dusty, thundering office to "come over here and look at this pretty bird!" Everyone who worked there crowded round, and all were keen to help me find the Pink-headed Duck. Jackie concluded by giving me reassurance I could hire a guide at the MTT Office in both Myitkyina and Bhamo, plus the daily rate I should expect to pay (around a tenth of the quoted figure at the Consul!) for the service.

Field notes (i) 28th September. Myitkyina.

Feeling slightly guilty as I remembered Jackie's helpfulness 1000 kms down south in the capital, I checked into the local YMCA and in the morning asked about the nearest independent travel agency. I was given the address of Snowland Tours around the corner.

Snowland Tours in run by a very helpful guide called Ahyin, who is from the far-north region of Putao (one of the least-explored areas on Earth). Ahyin is passionate about the environment, rare species and the preservation of ancient forest. Altogether he proved to be a perfect choice. Several telephone calls later, we established that going further north than Myitkyina would be a waste of time, as the terrain was not suitable for for Pink-headed Duck (being rocky and consisting of a ravine, as the Ayeyarwady cut its way down to Rangoon via Mandalay). Further north the region did indeed flatten out, but by that time would be too far upriver for me to have any hope of obtaining permission to visit the region.

We instead decided on a two-point plan: we would head first for Indawgyi lake and then return, travelling south to Sinbo. Indawgyi was not in my original plans, but Sinbo was, and this seemed a good idea. 

Trip one of three - Indawgyi lake.

Indawgyi lake lies to the west of Myitkyina, via Hopin, the nearest train station. The journey to Hopin takes around six hours and you have to leave Myitkyina at 5am. The trip to the lake itself from Hopin town is 42 kms and is usually taken via a bus trip costing $2.00 over the mountain (and may God help you) but unfortunately the rains had resulted in multiple landslides, which meant the service had been withdrawn. We instead hired mopeds at $26.00 USD per person, riding pillion on the two bikes.Before ascending the mountain, we stopped off at a tea hut where buckets of water were thrown over the superheated air-cooled engines. Whilst there, the owner told us that around two years ago, a mahoot (elephant controller/keeper) had seen two Pink-headed Ducks alight by evening on a pool lying around 9kms north-west of Indawgyi lake. He added that once word got around, a member of Greenpeace and another anonymous watcher staked out the pool for four days, but no birds were observed.

Fig' 2. With the gruelling 42 kms journey to the lake just beginning, at the foot of the mountain, a past sighting of two Pink-headed Ducks is recounted.

TRANSCRIPT ONE: INDAWGYI TEA-STATION.

“Yeah, in the big lake, in the big Indawgyi lake, and then the water goes from that lake to the Bhamai area, that is the North-east direction, but actually we have to go from the Nawg Pin village that’s the west direction to… on the way to Opagan, on the way there, two small pools there’s called Nawng Pin Da village. And there’s last two years ago, one Mahoot… Mahoot means the person who controls the elephant, who saw in the evening two Pink-headed Ducks flew in the evening from the big lake [Indawgyi lake] to that small pool and that’s only all the person explained me he saw last two years ago.

“That I think my idea is to more opportunity to see the special destination must be on the way to Chaung wa; that’s more possibility because there’s more bushy, more swampy, more wetlands and some small pools to hide to search food for such different kinds of birds.”

Field notes (ii) 28th September. Myitkyina.

The lakeside village of Lonton serves Indawgyi lake, and what visitors there are (usually birders) stay at the guesthouse right on the shore. The guesthouse is very basic, and power is rationed, with snacks and meals available at one of only two or three places in the village. Here at the lake, the owner told me of a Dutch birder who came to the lodge many times, looking for Pink-headed Duck. It should be noted that Indawgyi lake is really only a small distance from the Nawng Kwin wetlands, where Birdlife International reported the possible but unconfirmed sighting. The story (as was told to me) was that the Dutchman kept coming to the lake, staying at the lodge, and did indeed eventually see a Pink-headed Duck in the Nawng Kwin wetland from the comfort and elevated position of (and of course an excellent panoramic viewpoint from) a leased elephant which he hired near the village of Kemaing, after which he came to the area no longer. The conversation can be found transcripted below (note that when I asked if he "saw" the bird, my comment was misunderstood and interpreted to mean "filmed").

 

 fig' 2. A dawn Jurassic Park-like scene as a storm blows in on Indawgyi lake.

 

TRANSCRIPT TWO: LONTON LODGE, WEST SIDE OF INDAWGYI LAKE.

R.T: “This Dutch man… he came to the lodge?”

AHYIN: “Yeah, to this lodge for four or five years continually every year [illegible, possibly ‘annual’] year.”

R.T: “Always trying to find Pink-headed Duck?”

Conversation in Burmese.

AHYIN: “Yes, every year. Four or five years ago [?].

R.T: “Did he find it?”  (Ay Lin understood ‘find’ to mean: ‘film’).

AHYIN: “No, he didn’t find. But he saw by binocular. Maybe in the forest in that time was not possible to go by boat there, and he took elephant and he saw from elephant by binocular, but not… couldn’t take picture. But he saw.”

Conversation in Burmese.

AHYIN: “Many people saw it. But nobody took picture.”

R.T: “But more than one person saw it?”

A.L: “Yeah, more than one person saw it.”

                    

fig' 3: A mass of thick vegetation forms a labyrinth of narrow, natural canals to the north-east of Indawgyi lake. The Nawng Kwin wetland area is in the distance - infuriatingly off -limits to foreigners. 

Field notes (iii) 28th September. Chaung wa. 

We arrived at  Chaung wa village at around noon. The rains had swollen the lake and it was heavily infested with foliage, making it extremely difficult to find a way upriver from the lake. Indeed, we had to hire a villager from a lakeside village who knew the way through an intensly convoluted maze of weed, grassland and other floating vegetation. This was a depressing journey, because by now it was obvious that my question about whether the Pink-headed Duck was resident during the wet season had already been answered, both by the tales told to me so far and also the complete lack of birds compared to my previous (February) search. I had thought that gaining this knowledge (that the Pink-headed Duck was definitely a winter visitor to Myanmar) would be enough, but it only served to remind me of just how desperate my longing was to rediscover it. 

At Chaung wa village more anecdotal evidence cheered me up slightly, as I realised that it did indeed look likely that a living Pink-headed Duck had been seen. We settled at a table in the village and I ordered some coffee and food whilst Ahyin rounded up the most important person in the village (the headman, as it happened). A crowd quickly followed and we had a discussion about what had happened when "the Dutch guy" (as he had come to be known) returned to Chaung wa village.

 

 fig' 4. The village headman (left) of Chaung wa village relates the alleged Pink-headed Duck sighting; other villagers discuss the bird's colour plate from the book: The Wildfowl of South-east Asia,

TRANSCRIPT THREE: CHAUNG WA VILLAGE. 

(At and around the scene of the account given at Lonton lodge; Chaung wa village was one of two where de-briefing took place following the Dutchman’s sighting).

AHYIN: “He was happy but on the other hand he would be very very sad because he had no chance to take picture.” 

R.T: “But he was happy that he saw it?”

Conversation in Burmese.

R.T: “How long ago was this?”

AHYIN: “Three days.”

R.T: “And what year did the Dutch guy see this?”

AHYIN: “Seven years ago. Means 2003.”

R.T: “Possibly the Birdlife International year?”  (This refers to the year in which a possible but unconfirmed sighting of a Pink-headed Duck was noted in the Nawng Kwin wetlands nearby. (note: this would be important because it would either register other interest in Pink-headed Ducks in the region at that time, but may also be referring to the expedition itself).

Long conversation in Burmese.

AHYIN: “Maybe 2006 or 2007, he thinks. He didn’t remember when well”.

R.T: “He says maybe 7. Yeah. The Dutch guy.”

AHYIN [interrupts] : “He began in 2003 and the last time 2007. [Ay Lin makes circular motion with his arm]. “Every year, every year, every year and then 2007 - stop.”

It is established that Ahyin knows now from the Headman and the other villagers that the sighting did take place in the Nawng Kwin wetland.

AHYIN: “This Nawng Kwin area is swampy. Huge swampy area, and this maybe a small pools, here, wide… another; not only two pools, I think, many, many! But over there beyond this lake you can see Naung Pin Da village; it’s a little bit far.

Note: The villages of Nawng Pin, Nawng Pin Da and Chaung wa are all villages that straddle the north of the lake. Nawng Pin Da is the village nearest to all the activity, but this also seems to be the nearest one we can visit without having to obtain official permission.  After Ahyin draws a map in the ground with a stick, we talk about (i) the apparent route that led to the sighting and (ii) the difficulties of getting permission to visit the areas that are off-limits to foreigners.

AHYIN: “… went to lodge in own car. Drove from the lodge to Nawng Pin Da village. Dropped the car off, and walked by elephant around the area… To the west of Lonton [lakeside lodge] there’s a big elephant camp. Sixty to seventy elephants always there.”

Conversation in Burmese.

AHYIN: “You should contact the Dutch guy. How did he made permission to go there? That’s important, I think. Maybe he made connection with the forestry or with WCS. Maybe forestry. Forestry Department in Myanmar. Ministry in Myanmar. Maybe like that. Maybe you can deal with WCS. Before. Always they want to go there to see something, you know?”

R.T: “Oh, so they want to go there anyway? Would I pay the WCS?”

AHYIN [doubtfully]: “I don’t know. Maybe they can spend themselves, because they had a lot of funding. They’re based in New York in America so I think it would be not that difficult to spend themselves. And firstly we can communicate them: how can they run this trip themselves or join together? I mean financial. Because they always have to observe everywhere and make a research for some wildlife, because they have to describe in their books or their [the wildlife] activity, always.”

R.T: “They must know that if they found a living Pink-headed Duck this, it would be very important.”

Ahyin then expands on the importance and prominence of WCS.

AHYIN:“ Right now they are based in Myitkyina and from Myitkyina you have to go by car one day drive to Tanai. Tanai, after Tanai there is Haunggon Valley… is tiger reserve now. That’s National Park. And on the other hand they are based in Putao. Putao for [illegible] National Park, and so maybe they know how to do. Anyway you have to contact them to make the observation or exploration.”

Conclusions drawn from Trip one:

From this initial trip we discovered that there were two separate (unsubstantiated) sightings of Pink-headed Duck in the region around Chaung wa village just south-west of Nawng Kwin, a hotspot of Pink-headed Duck interest. One sighting (the mahoot's sighting) was taken seriously enough for members of at least one outside organisation (Greenpeace) to  investigate further. However, no birds were seen on the pool.

The second encounter (the Dutch guy's sighting) of a Pink-headed Duck in Nawng Kwin seems to bear more substansive fruit, falling within expected patterns of behaviour: repeated visits to the spot; immediate reporting (as would be not only normal but entirely understandable!) and no more visits to the spot thereafter. In fact this would in itself point to what seems a genuine sighting of a Pink-headed Duck: failure to capture the bird on film is unfortunate, but given the fact that the sighting clearly sated a personal ambition, the distance and expense involved in travelling from Europe to Burma, and the unlikeliness involved of repeating the moment and perhaps next time obtaining footage, it seems reasonable to assume that, for this birder at least, the road had met its end in this particular case.

When I got back to Lonton lodge, I went to a man's house to buy some gold independantly. I was wearing my Pink-headed Duck T-shirt and the occupant of the house both recognised the picture of the Pink-headed Duck and also commented without prompting that he recognised the bird (from the T-shirt of course, not from any actual specimen). He seemed in relaxed humour when pointing this out, and genuine when he told us it had been found and, like the farmer I encountered on my 2009 trip, neither excited by its importance, nor perplexed by its insignificance. I got the impression that both the bird and the sighting were just 'there', and the attitude of the village and the villagers and the lodgekeeper would have been the same whether it had been encountered or not been seen, or spoken about at all.

What I took away from me the most with this trip was the impression that (a) the Pink-headed Duck seemed less extinct than it did before and (b) maybe we should consider revising our question from: "is the bird extinct?" to: "who's seen it and isn't telling anyone about it?"

I don't draw this conclusion because I sensed concerns about the birds' continued conservation and safety; more because I got the impression that people who see Pink-headed Ducks carry the memory around on a personal level like a jewel in a box or a masterpiece in a private room for personal viewing. For any birder, this surely has to be a memory and an experience like no other.

Trip two of three: Sinbo.

The tropical storm that had blown in on the last day at Indawgyi lake had not moved on. I spent an uncomfortable night in a spartan room at the lodge at the lodge, ‘my’ room having been commandeered by a visiting member of the military. Here there was no mosquito net, and the mosquitos bit ferociously all night (as a helpful aside, the sentries at the nearby fort demonstrated their alert state as required by beating their drums every hour, on the hour).

By the time we loaded the bikes for the trip over the mountain, the storm was ready to blow right in, and the rains came in earnest by the time we had completed the first 3 kms or so. We fled to a nearby shop for breakfast as the rain bucketed down. Eventually the storm eased slightly and we began the trip again: by this time the path up to the summit (a dirt track) was knee-deep in fresh mud.

There then followed a river ferry down the Ayeyarwady to Sinbo from Myitkyina. We arrived late in the afternoon and we bagged down at the lodge. The lodge (the only hotel in the town for anyone, foreign and local alike) was charming and rustic and had a balcony overlooking the river that bent and creaked under our shoes. If the weather had been better it would have been idyllic.

That night, after a good meal, a few beers and shots of local whisky, Ahyin brought in the village leaders, plus somebody from Immigration. I showed them the picture of the Pink-headed Duck and they identified the usual birds, mallard, pintail, ruddy shelduck etc. The Pink-headed Duck they said they didn't know. But then we talked about the pools that I had seen on Google Earth before the trip, and they said that they knew of a better pool that was in dense grassland at the edge of some wild forest, that few people ever visited. Ideal Pink-headed Duck country! After stamping out papers and instructing Ahyin to let the military know, the Immigration Officer and village leader drew us both a map showing us how to reach the pool.

Not for the first time I was struck by the helpfulness of the Myanmar people, even (almost especially) those who held authority. Everywhere I had been I 'd received help and assistance just like this; on my first trip Po Se had taken to the forest to pray to the Buddah to “show the foreigner the Pink-headed Duck,” I recalled Jackie’s helpfulness and comments to her friends at the Myanmar Tourism Office to “Come and see the pretty bird!” And now here was Immigration helping us find a pool in the middle of nowhere! The small dirt-floor ‘restaurant’ was lit by candlelight, the rain was hammering the roof, and the Pink-headed Duck stared out of my book at us all. With a few beers already packed away, and sipping at tumblers of whisky, I felt at peace with the world.

The route to the pool lay over a number of scrubby fields, and from then on over a vast area of long grassland. We had to take great care to walk on a raised area line of around five inches in width, otherwise we would sink up to our waists in cold water; with leeches already making themselves known, and the rain hammering down from a cold, grey sky (thanks to the storm) it made for very unpleasant walking.

                      

fig' 5. This little shop perched on the Ayeyarwady's banks  provided shelter as rain from the tropical storm hammered down outside. The mud outside promised a grim journey to the pool.

When we found the pool it was something of a disappointment, so clogged with weed it was hardly worthy of the name (especially as everywhere else by this stage was distinctly pool-like). It blended in almost completely with the soaked vegetation and long grass, but I was assured by the owner of the hotel that actually in the winter the weed on the pool died and the pool became more pronounced. Also of course the grassland would be dried, and so any wintering ducks, Pink-headed or otherwise would see it as a welcome stop for feeding and relaxing.

We were drenched, cold and facing a long journey back over our tightrope of raised lines, from the side of which we had plunged into the swamp on more than one occasion. It was on the way back after about a minute or so that single bird flew up for about 3 seconds. It was a single duck and it sported a dark plumage with what appeared to be a pale contrasting neck and head. The duck landed further into the swamp and me and Lan To (our hotel owner and manager) decided to go in after it. I was armed with my camcorder and had the area of its landing in sight, and Lan To was shouting along with me, hoping to flush it. I actually got to the area where I thought it had landed, but alas the duck would not flush; from the moment of its landing it might just as well have gone from the face of the Earth.

This was to be probably the best - and by definition, worst - example of the problems that plague trips such as these. Whatever duck it was would have been less than five metres away and would have shown up easily in the camcorder’s viewfinder if it had flushed. It was, of course, infuriatingly not to be!

We spent a miserable two hours or so at the shop drinking coffee and wringing out our socks and clothes. It was the coldest and wettest part of any trip past, present and, I’m sure, future. Later, we headed further down the Ayeyawady to look at some ‘large islands’, now simply a pathetic speck of peeping land and trees from the swollen river, much more swollen due to the storm. I was told the islands really were more pronounced in the cold season, but to envisage this under this bland, blank canvas of dreary fawn and grey that looked so much like a bad watercolour took more imagination than I could drag up.

                     

fig' 6. In heavy rain, round half a mile from here a single, solitary duck flew briefly for around three seconds near to the pool: our first and last view of it, and indeed of any other wildfowl; the area seemed completely deserted. 

 

The next morning I said goodbye to Ahyin and watched him depart for his ferry back upriver to Myitkyina. My own ferry for Bhamo was due to depart two hours later, and literally at that very moment I left the hotel and began my walk out of Sinbo I became aware of a faint change in the light; I looked upwards at what looked to be a watery silver sixpence in the grey sky. The clouds had thinned and there were touches of blue. I was never gladder to see the sun and feel its warmth on my skin and clothes. The storm had passed.

Conclusions drawn from Trip two:

In the dry season there is a road that leads out of the village of Sinbo and this road connects to Hopin. Hopin is the town that serves Indawgyi lake, so in actual fact there are two methods of getting from town to town. Which one is more pleasant remains to be seen; the forest road looked tranquil enough, and probably fantastic for monkeys, parrots and other fauna, but the trip downriver is probably better and more convenient. Going in reverse, however (from Sinbo to Myitkyina) would be excellent as you would avoid going upriver to Myitkyina and avoid the five-to-seven hour train ride to Hopin.

What was the bird with the pale neck and head? Well, although the Sinbo leg of the trip was spent largely underwater, it seemed, and cold, it was a good marker for one’s psychological level for consistency, I found: with constant hopes thwarted all the time, it’s so easy to lull yourself into thinking you’ve seen more than you’ve seen at any one given moment. Also, the frustration of constantly not seeing the Pink-headed Duck means you are always flirting with exaggeration, even if you don’t mean this to happen. I’m glad to be able to say I treated both imposters just the same, and to this day I’m happy to admit I’ll never know what the duck was that was hiding in the swamp. But it reinforced my view that for those birders who have seen Pink-headed Duck (and I am convinced they are out there) for themselves, it’s a moment unsurpassed.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the best was yet to come…

 

Trip three of three: Bhamo and 98 In region of the Tapin river.

Bhamo, lying as it does on the eastern bank of the Ayeyawady around 250 kms north of Mandalay, is an area that entertains a sizeable portion of what little Burmese Pink-headed Duck written history there is. Historically, Blyth wrote of its occurrance in the later part of the nineteenth century (1875), and this lead to further comment, including (Oates & Blandford - see my earlier copyright footnote for acknowledgements):  “The Pink-headed Duck can be found north of Bhamo, but nowhere else in the Irrarawaddy valley.” Such comment was possibly referring to a northeastern area known as 98 Ins, upriver and eastwards along the Tapin river tributary, a fairly remote part of Kachin State that flits between deep water and marshland, scattered with deep, clear pools, oxbow lakes and bordered by thick forest. It was here in 2009 that I learned of two separate alleged sightings of Pink-headed Duck, and naturally I wanted to investigate further.

I had carried more to Bhamo than the disappointments of Indawgyi lake and Sinbo: the mosquito bites I had suffered at the Lonton lodge had refused to heal and began to show visible signs of infection. I hoped any medical trouble might be delayed until the visit to the inns (lakes) was over.

I was overjoyed to see my old friend Sein Win again! And it wasn’t long until (after immediate tea at his house) that we enlisted the faithful Po Se and his boat once again. The only downside was the typical nosiness of the Friendship Hotel, which demanded to know exactly where I was going, and when. The Friendship Hotel is not above informing on unlicensed guides to the immigration authorities (for commercial rather than political reasons) and as a result I escaped and checked into the nearby Grand Hotel.

This, as it turned out, was no better: peddling the same lie about visiting the Orwellian village of Khatar downriver, I left the hotel deliberately very early, and flagged down surely the first cycle-rickshaw of the day to take me to our secret mooring-point. Just as I was congratulating myself on a brilliant demonstration of espionage, I became aware of a buzzing sound in my right ear: I turned around to see the manager of the Grand Hotel on his scooter, waving his arm at me as he steered with one hand and informing me that I was going “the wrong way!”the jetty for Khatar was “that way!” Stopping the rickshaw I explained that I was in no hurry and that actually I wanted to take some photographs of a monastery at the end of the street. Thankfully, the manager turned his scooter around and headed back to the hotel, which was just as well because Sein Win was hiding in the bushes that lined the monastery’s south wall. Shaken, I explained what had happened, but Sein Win with his typical: “what-can-they-do?” shrug, wouldn’t hear of any change of plan.

Field notes (iv) 28th September. Tapin river.

Chugging up the Tapin river, surrounded by the peace and quiet, I soon forgot about dealing with the inevitable questions on my return. It would soon become obvious I had not boarded a boat to Khatar, and staying in non-government approved hotels is illegal in Burma; effectively camping out (as we were doing on Po Se’s boat) was taking this to extremes. But I knew at this time that this was my last chance to find out on this trip if the Pink-headed Duck was a resident of Burma or a winter visitor; there was so much information to be had it was impossible not to feel this Pink-headed obsession almost a finger-stretch away in the very air. Indawgyi lake had dive-bombed into frustrating jealousy of both the mahoot and “The Dutch Guy”; Sinbo had been a miserable washout; here at least I was on familiar ground, the sun was shining and my spirits soared: we were going to a place where (a) historical evidence existed of Pink-headed Duck and (b) we had obtained poitive leads before! Life was suddenly good again!

 

fig' 7. Around 5 kms from the mooring point and 9 kms from the area of interest, the banks of the swollen Tapin river give way to grasslands, clear pools and thick forest.At this time of year however, all oxbows and pools were obliterated beneath water: it was simply a floodplain.

 

We moored Po Se’s boat on the riverbank and I was glad of his knowledge; the river might as well have been in another country! The three metre-deep bank we once to scramble up was now about an inch above our feet, such was the level of the flooding.    

We began as we meant to continue: the only previous lead we had of any possible recent sighting of a living Pink-headed Duck had come from Kyaw Laing, a local fisherman and farmer living in this region. Naturally we made a beeline for his hut and scampered up the stairs to his upper room. There we waited for him and sipped tea.

Kyaw Laing was pleased (although nonchalant as always) to see Sein Win again (I got the impression Sein Win popped upriver occasionally with Po Se, who used to farm the area before moving to Bhamo); Kyaw Laing did not, however recognise me initially, I felt, but he remembered soon enough and laughed a little when he saw me tugging out my pictures. This time I had a clear picture of a male Pink-headed Duck from: The Wildfowl of Asia.

This is the transcript of the recording of our three-way conversation (Sein win translates):

TRANSCRIPT FOUR - OUTSIDE KYAW LAING'S HUT.  

R.T: “The duck again. Remember?”

I show the picture of the Pink-headed Duck from the book to Kyaw Laing.

Short conversation in Burmese.

Kyaw Laing gestures over my head towards the large expanse of grassland and freshwater pools.

Further, slightly longer conversation in Burmese.

SEIN WIN: “They stay only… they stay only in couple. Only a coup- only two duck… female and male.”

R.T: “Of this bird?”

SEIN WIN: “Yeah, this bird.”

I reiterate the fact that we have to verify the species. I point to the male Pink-headed Duck from The Wildfowl of Asia.

R.T: “Of this variety?” Kyaw Laing gestures two fingers to indicate ‘two birds.’

R.T: “ have you seen it?” Kyaw Laing nods.

SEIN WIN: “Yeah, he have seen it. The last year.”

R.T: “The last year? What time? [I mean what time of year but this is taken literally]”.

SEIN WIN: “In the evening.”

R.T: “What was the month?”

Conversation in Burmese.

SEIN WIN: “He saw it in December in the cold season.”

I repeat this, showing again the picture from the book.

R.T: “Definitely?”

SEIN WIN: “Yeah, definitely.”

R.T: “Where did he see it?”

Kyaw Laing gestures again over my shoulder to the same place.

SEIN WIN: “It’s a big lake.”

R.T: “That big lagoon? I thought it was going to be there!”

Further translation by Sein win.

SEIN WIN: “Mostly he said, by only it’s evening.”

R.T: “Now, what time in the evening?”

Conversation in Burmese.

SEIN WIN: “Ah, between three and four.”

I then ask if there is any way we can get out there, even though I know this lagoon Kyaw Laing is referring to, I want to see it for myself. I also reiterate the conversation, summing up:

R.T: “Okay, so he saw two?” (yes).

R.T: “A male and a female?” (yes).

R.T: “I knew it was going to be on that lake!

We make arrangements to take out Kyaw Laing’s boat but we have to eat and wait for him to finish farming for the day. We aim to leave to get to the lake around three in the afternoon.

Kyaw Laing finishes with further information before returning to his farming. The information shows knowledge of the Pink-headed Duck’s non-gregarious habits and asocial status, possibly indicating further he may know Pink-headed Duck. Sein Win translates:

SEIN WIN: “A pair of duck… they stay only together. A male and a female [but] they never stay as a group.  

R.T: “Pink-headed?”

SEIN WIN: “Pink-headed, yeah.”

R.T: “Thank you!”

(I’m unable to help myself…)

R.T: “More than you can possibly imagine!”

Field notes (v) 28th September. Tapin river.

We took out Kyaw Laing’s boat as he allowed us to, the boat was narrow and without a keel and we came close to tipping on many occasions and suffered motion sickness, and the areas we had walked on in February 2009 (see Home and 2009 Search) was now a great flooded area of clear water and desertion. The silence was broken only by hordes of mallard and teal flushed by the boat.

 fig' 8. A spectacular sunrise on the Tapin river signals the last day of the 2009 trip.

 

In the morning after a very uncomfortable night on the boat, I reassessed our position: there was to be no Pink-headed Duck sighting this trip. We took the boat out for fun the next morning, but we had already gathered vital information. That final morning of the 2010 trip to Burma was a beautiful morning. The sky was virtually cloudless, apart from a few high cirrus, and of such a vast, cornflower-blue it was as hard to imagine as to describe. In warm morning sunshine the mist crawled down the forested hills to the lake areas and there really was a sound of silence.

                                                                                           

fig' 8. Just the sound of paddles and birds: a last log of the floodplain..

 

Conclusions drawn from Trip three and final conclusions:

We left the flooded wetlands with the sarcastic laughter of a mallard ringing in our ears; as if reminding us that the score on this trip was: Birds 1 - 0 Humans. But actually I was happy enough with what we'd learnt on the journey: we had tracked the Pink-headed Duck back to its old historical haunts; we had been given the best time of year to see it; we now had two locations of positive sighting within the wetlands (both the lagoon and the lake of 2009 – both of which I now had the co-ordinates for); we had established beyond reasonable doubt that the Pink-headed Duck surely had to be a visitor rather than a resident species in Burma; we had further - and recent - anecdotal evidence.

My trip to Burma was not to end well: the mosquito bites suffered at Indawgyi lake did indeed become infected; I was unable to walk on my return to Mandalay and headed straight for the city hospital for blood tests and antibiotics. The questioning on my return to Bhamo from the wetlands was not so good! I also knew I had to endure the thrice-miseries back in the UK of working hard, waiting hard and saving hard for a whopping fourteen months, before coming back to this area once again! Knowing all the time that if I could have only stayed around for two more months the Pink-headed Duck (if it was) would come again to the lake area for a third time. But leave Burma I had to do until the next December, and this time I would need two guides: Sein Win (who knew Kyaw Laing but was not accredited with the proper documentation) and Ahyin from the Indawgyi lake and Sinbo treks (who had the appropriate licence).

But come back I would; all observations and plans dominated my thoughts at Yangon's departure gate, and later as I sped down the runway. The net, it seemed, was closing.

Videoblog. In 2012 I returned, to find the country much changed: the political position was much more hostile and Banmaw was under close military and political scrutiny. Troops were everywhere and there was palpable tension in the air. This trip, in danger of capsizing many, many times, carried frustrations; bureaucratic nightmares and a personal, almost inoperable  injury for me on the road uptown from Banmaw in a vain attempt to cross the river into the wetlands. To see what happened, please go to 2012 Search. To see the videoblog of the search discussed on this page: The Net Closes, please click here.

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

   

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

         



 





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