Environment

Rarely spotted Mandarin Duck and Black-necked Crane stop by in Assam==========“I couldn’t believe it,” says Madhab Gogoi excitedly over the phone from Assam, about his surprise date with the spectacular-looking bird in the early weeks of February. He was at Maguri-Motapung beel (wetland) in Tinsukia district, Assam, birdwatching in the wetlands when he noticed a colourful bird floating on the surface of the lake. Curious, he zoomed in with his binoculars and realised that it was the Mandarin duck, a rare bird that was last seen in Assam in the 1900s.

Unforgettable
“It was a historic moment, as the bird has shown up after 120 years at the same location. It was last spotted at Dibru river in Tinsukia in 1902. The streak of colours on the plumage, especially the male during the breeding season is a mind-boggling mix of white, green, golden orange and blue. You can call it the ‘queen’ among water birds,” says Gogoi.

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The eBird website, a platform that documents birds the world over, calls it a ‘small-exotic looking bird’ native to East Asia, and describes the male as ‘very ornate with big orangey ‘sail fins’ on the back, streaked orangey cheeks, and a small red bill with a whitish tip.’

According to birders like Jaydev Mandal, the duck “seems to have strayed from its regular migratory path”. He says over call from Assam, “They breed in Russia, Korea, Japan and the northeastern parts of China — as the name Mandarin also suggests. The species is also found in western Europe and the US. The bird rarely visits India as the wintering grounds of the birds are Mongolia and China.”

Spotted
After Assam, a lone Mandarin duck was spotted last week in Arunachal Pradesh at Siikhe lake, Ziro, a first spotting of this small and exotic species in the State.
It is suspected that it is the same duck from Assam’s Maguri Motapung wetland spotted earlier this month that has made a 300-kilometre journey to get there.
Jaydev spearheaded the second edition of Bihu Bird Count that covered 27 districts and recorded 400 species of birds. “ We can call it a vagrant that briefly stopped by at the same location where it was last seen in the 20th Century, making it a record sighting.”

“Maybe it’s a casual sighting” says Nilutpal Mahanta, a PhD scholar at Gauhati University and an avid birder. “If one studies the migratory pathways listed on ebird, we learn that this bird is not a winter visitor to India. The birds that flock wintering grounds in India take the Central Asian Flyway, and Mandarin ducks don’t take that route.

It could even be a species that escaped from an illegal wildlife trader. The ducks is often captured and traded because of its beauty. Illegal trading of exotic species is rampant along China, Bangladesh, and Myanmar border,” he adds.

Rare sightings
Naturalists suspect that climate changes and habitat destruction have triggered a spate of rare sightings in Assam. A pair of black-necked cranes were also sighted in the countryside of the outskirts of the Panbari range of Manas National Park, a first-ever record in Assam.

Black-necked crane sighted at Manas National Park, Assam.
Black-necked crane sighted at Manas National Park, Assam. | Photo Credit: Nilutpal Mahanta

Explains Nilutpal, “It is a medium-sized crane that breeds on the Tibetan Plateau and remote parts of India and Bhutan. They have been mostly recorded in high altitudes of Jimithang and Sangti valley in western parts of Arunachal Pradesh in India. Locals of Panbari have named bird deu korchon (Deu means related to God and mythology, and Korchon means crane) as it has mythological importance in Buddhist culture.”

Though the environment became stable in the last year with less pollution, habitat destruction is a cause of worry, says Nilutpal. “In January, we also spotted the rarely seen Indian golden oriole in Assam. Such rare sightings make us happy but also leave us confused,” he explains.

Gogoi is happy; the appearance of Mandarin duck has kick-started a discussion on conservation. “Of the 1,200 birds that can be seen in India, over 900 species are found in the Northeast part of India, including Assam and Mizoram. Birders throng to Assam to see resident beauties like grey peacock pheasant and white winged wood duck,” he says. Then adds, “But the beauty of Mandarin has left not just the naturalists, but also the general public speechless. It has inspired them to give a serious thought about conservation. It is heartening.”

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