Baer’s Pochard: The Doomed Duck

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At 1400h Friday on Chiang Saen Lake, in Thailand’s far north, a single Baer’s Pochard graced me with his presence. He was sitting up on the lake, out in open water and every so often doing a bit of diving. This made it a little difficult to keep on him continously and it was by no means simple to distinguish him from the Ferruginous Ducks with whom he was hanging out. At a distance the very dark head (mainly black but close up a dark green) of the Baer’s and the dark ruddy brown of the Ferruginous were very difficult to separate. We didn’t encroach and did our utmost to  ensure we didn’t cause any disturbance. So no photographs.

So a successful twitch. But in truth little cause for celebration. This twitch was the equivalent of paying a visit to a terminally ill loved one.  This species is tragically doomed, extinction beckons. A very succinct account of the species’ decline and imminent fall can be read here. I hope even at this late stage that some sort of initiative is launched to try and do something to save this species from the brink.

As it is this could well be the last Baer’s Pochard to be seen in Thailand. I believe it is the first one to be seen in two years. In his seminal field guide, A Guide to the Birds of Thailand,  published in 1991, (and IMHO still the best English language field guide to Thailand’s avifauna despite needing a lot of updating) Philip Round describes Baer’s as “an uncommon winter visitor”;  interestingly he describes Ferruginous as a “rare winter visitor”. I would estimate about 30 Ferruginous were present on Friday, so a complete reversal.

Thanks to Mr Bonpop for getting me out onto the lake and then putting me onto the Baer’s in among some  Ferruginous. Mr Boonpop knows his ducks and he knows his way around the lake and its nooks and crannies.

Prior to the Baer’s the day was already a rip roaring success. I fell out of bed lakeside to three each of Grey-headed Lapwing and Pintail Snipe and a pair of Black-collared Starling. I don’t get to see these species very often down south.  Lots of Purple Swamphen and good numbers of Little Grebe and Common Moorhen and a little bit further out several hundred Lesser Whistling Ducks, Chiang Saen’s default duck. A noisy lot giving off their high pitched shrill. White Wagtail and a solitary Pied Bushchat, both common in the North, made for pleasant and different viewing. The Pied Bushchat was game and didn’t appear too worried about my getting close.

A pair of white and black ducks further out in open water had me flummoxed.  I wondered whether they were juvenile Cotton Pygmy-goose but these were diving and one had quite distinct black markings around the ear coverts. I also reckon that if they were Cotton Pygmy-goose there would have been a lot more than a solitary pair.

Long-tailed Duck was also a possibility except neither had any suggestion of, errrr, a long tail! Plus both bills looked black and this is not how they appear in the book…. and I’m one of these birders who finds it difficult dealing with birds that are not exactly as they are described and portrayed in the field guides. So I made a little drawing in my notebook and took a couple of very fuzzy digiscoped images to assist with identification.

I asked Mr Bonpop later if there was Cotton Pygmy-goose on the lake. No. I described what I had seen and where and that I wanted to eliminate the pygmy-goose. He smiled and advised : Long-tailed Duck- a first lifer of the trip and a major rarity to boot. The excellent Thai language field guide describes this duck as  นกพลัดหลง หายากมาก….my translation. … “a very rare vagrant”. In fact I think it has only ever been seen at Chiang Saen lake and has only been added to the Thai list in the last few years.

My drive along the lake shore also threw up one Burmese Shrike perched on wires, and quite indifferent to my proximity.  Lots of Sooty-headed Bulbuls of the Klossi subspecies showing their distinctive red vents; a pair of phylloscopus warblers flashed through which I took to be Arctic but Dave Sargeant has rightly cast doubt on this; possibly Pale-legged, who knows? And prior to lunch a White-rumped Shama perched up fifteen feet away from me as if giving me the once over. In real terms I know nothing about species distribution in Thailand ( but I’m learning!) so this shama surprised me.

In the afternoon it took an hour to find the Baer’s Pochard and I must confess I was anxious until, while scanning a group of Ferruginous, Mr Bonpop announced “Baer” . Before that we had nine beautiful Ruddy Shelducks and a few Ferruginous Ducks in pockets plus some Garganey and a pair of Gadwall. We also noted five Eurasian Wigeon.
The bird, however, that really stood out for me was the Indian Spot-billed Duck, the second most common duck on the lake – a real beauty. The Baer’s, Ferruginous and Indian Spot-billed were all lifers.
On our return to the pier the presence of an Osprey perched atop a tree on the island seemed anti-climactic.

On return I dashed up the Mekong river to the Rim Kong restaurant overlooking a large sand bank. Over dinner I counted 30 Small Pratincoles and a handful of White Wagtails.

After dinner I headed to the Harrier Roost on the Yonok Wetlands ….. got lost but still made it with plenty of time and what a perfect way to end the day.  Scores of harriers, either Pied or Eastern Marsh, all over the place.  At one point I counted 23 male Pied Harriers on the ground – this doesn’t include the ones perched on trees or in the air. It’s a truly impressive sight and very atmospheric with huge flocks of Lesser Whistling Ducks cascading close by.

What a day!

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