Any kind of duck other than a whistling-duck is a good find in Malaysia, so when Ooi Beng Yean and other Perak MNS members discovered a Tufted Duck at Malim Nawar mining pools during their AWC count a few weeks ago, ears pricked up! Though an annual visitor in Sabah, Tufted Ducks are extremely rare in the Peninsula, with just three Malaysian (including one mist-netted at Fraser’s Hill, which must have raised a few eyebrows!) and one Singaporean record.
However, soon after photos of the Malim Nawar bird appeared, questions began to be raised, and the dreaded ‘H’ word began to be bandied about! Wasn’t the bill too large? And what about the head shape? Not to put too fine a point on it, the poor bird’s parentage began to be called into doubt.
The whiff of controversy added spice enough to overcome my initial reluctance at the idea of travelling for over 2 hours to see a bird I have seen hundreds of in my local park back in the UK, so I accepted the offer of a ride with Mun and Choo Eng on 2nd Feb, anticipating that hordes of ‘twitchers’ might soon drive the bird into hiding.
The photo above was our initial view as we arrived just on dawn, and my first thought was, confronted with such a silhouette, I wonder how many European birders would confidently put a name to it? There is something slightly Greater Scaup-like about the head and bill, at least, if my memory serves, and it certainly is not what I would think of as ‘typical’ for a “Tuftie”.
However, a shift in viewpoint, and more light on proceedings soon put the mind to rest.
It was clearly wild, being very aware of where we were and keeping a careful distance. Strangely it never dived, making me wonder whether it was injured or sick. However, it frequently up-ended to feed, so perhaps the pond wasn’t deep enough to make diving necessary or possible.
I’m not an expert on Aythya ducks, or hybrids, but there’s an excellent double-page spread in the Collins Bird Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe on Aythya hybrids. In summary, the things to look at are:
- iris colour
- pattern, size and shape of bill (including the black tip or ‘nail’)
- head profile
- presence or absence of fine vermiculations (thin wavy lines) on grey or grey-brown parts
I would add ‘wing pattern’ to that list.
First of all, the bright yellow eye is fine for male Tufted, and rules out Pochard as a possible parent.
The rounded ‘U’ shape where the forehead meets the bill also rules against Pochard influence, and the broad black ‘dipped-in-ink’ nail, bordered by a pale line is spot-on for Tufted. Greater Scaup has a nail restricted to a black dot at the tip, and Scaup genes might be expected to make the nail narrower than it is on this bird. The bill does look on the large side compared to birds from the European population which I am most familiar with, but not so much so to be a show-stopper.
The flanks show vermiculations (I think this is fine for eclipse/subadult plumage), but the scapulars and mantle appear solid black, which is good for Tufted (Scaup and Pochard influence would likely show as grey here).
The beginnings of a head tuft are just visible here. A scan of the images on Oriental Bird Images (where would we be without it?!) shows that this rather lumpy, squarish headshape, with a prominent bump on the forecrown is quite typical for males when not in breeding plumage. So presumably the cute rounded head is partly a product of a fully developed tuft (compare the two birds here).
No sign of wing-clipping or damage – always a good sign! The wingbars look good for Tufted, although the rather broad black tips to the secondaries were a surprise to me. Another quick check of OBI revealed that at least some Indian birds show this. I’d never noticed the green-glossed inner secondaries before (which shows how little I’ve ever really looked at Tufted Ducks!).
Another view of the upperwing, with an appreciative (curious?) audience – a juvenile Little Grebe.
It ticks all the boxes for me as a pure-bred, wild, free-range, genuine leather Tufted. So, you hordes out there – go see it!