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Another incursion across the LAC: Mandarin Duck, the Beautiful intruder

The Mandarin Duck spotted in Assam by Gunjan Gogoi

Last month there was an intrusion from the Line of Actual Control (LAC) but this lovely ‘intruder’ was welcomed by bird watchers in India.  

The Mandarin Duck, considered the most beautiful duck in the world, made an appearance in the wetlands of Maguri Motapung Beel, near Baghjan in Assam's Tinsukia after more than a century. First spotted on February 8 by Madhab Gogoi, a Tinsukia-based birder and tour guide, the duck immediately became the star of the wetland.

“I couldn’t believe it,” says Madhab Gogoi excitedly over the phone from Assam, about his surprise date with the spectacular-looking, 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.

“Immediately I called up my photographer friend to click the memorable pictures of the Mandarin Duck which has come here all the way from China.” Said Gogoi, “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.”

After one week or so, 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. Indian Forest official Ankit Kumar posted the picture on Twitter.

“It is a rare species which has recently been spotted at Maguri Motapung Wetland in Assam after a gap of 108 years and at Siikhe lake, Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh.”  He tweeted along with the picture of the duck.

“The male Mandarin duck, native to East Asia, how come he is here? And he was dazzling, spotting the Mandarin duck was a pleasant surprise as we had decided to visit the Maguri Motapung Beel on the way to Arunachal Pradesh for a survey of the white-winged wood duck. Mixed flocking is not unusual among different species of ducks. This Mandarin duck possibly lost its way or broke away from its kind to fly with the Indian spot-billed ducks,” Aftab Ahmed of Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) was quoted by the media as saying.

WTI experts believe that mandarin ducks do not usually come to India but one or two may join flocks of other migratory birds and go along with them.

According to the experts, the duck seems to have strayed from its regular migratory path”. They breed in Russia, Korea, Japan and the north-eastern 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.

Considered the most beautiful duck in the world, the Mandarin duck (Aix galericulata) was first identified by Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist Carl Linnaeus in 1758. The eBird website, a platform that documents birds world over, describes it as a “small-exotic looking bird” native to East Asia. 

The eBird website, a platform that documents birds world over, describes it as a “small-exotic looking bird” native to East Asia, 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” and the female with “narrow white spectacles on a shaggy grey head, bold pale dappled spots along flanks, and pale bill tip.” According to the site, 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.

Mandarin ducks are known for their eye-catching look—their red bill; purple breast; crest of black, green, blue, and copper; and golden-orange wings. And yet, that trait is not universal for the species. Only the males have this appearance, while females look more like average, run-of-the-mill ducks. They have grey or cream-coloured feathers with bills to match.

Mandarin ducks are very common in China and Japan, and they are known for the males' vibrantly coloured plumage. However, while the males' stunning plumage becomes a long-lasting inspiration for Asian artists throughout the history, the female mandarin ducks are surprisingly plain in their appearances.

Mandarin ducks appear in pairs throughout the mating season. Therefore, in China, the mandarin ducks have long been regarded as symbols for love and fidelity. The brightly coloured male and more sombre coloured female are often pictured together swimming side by side and preening one another. The pair are immortalized in wooden carvings for wedding gifts, on ceramics and even in the language of love. This is because these ducks are monogamous and once they have found their partner they mate for life. Therefore, they have become the perfect symbol of fidelity, marriage and affection.

Mandarin ducks are native to China, Japan, Korea, and eastern Russia, but habitat destruction has reduced the ducks' population in these areas. The good news is that the species can thrive outside of its native range. Populations can be found across Europe and in the United States. This wide range is why, despite the global population decreasing, the IUCN categorizes the duck as being of least concern.