It’s curious, even comical, more like a cartoon character from Disneyland than a real-life bird. Worldwide there is no species of wildfowl quite like the pink-eared duck.
It’s a bird that looks like it’s been cobbled together as an afterthought, with pieces left over from the construction of myriad other species. It’s the duck-billed platypus of the bird world.
It resembles a shoveller but is smaller, and the bill is less like a shovel than an instrument used for poking fires. The black-and-white striped plumage borrows heavily from the zebra finch – or dare I say it, from the zebra itself – and there’s even a touch of the pink robin in there, a flash of magenta behind the eye which gives the bird its common name, although in some quarters it is called the zebra duck.
Studying Australian birds in books from afar, growing up in Britain and later visiting zoos to see such exotic species as cockatoos and kookaburras, I was always drawn to the teal-sized Australia duck that looked like no other.
Pink-eared ducks are not native to Tasmania and their rare sightings when they stray from their normal range of south-eastern mainland Australia are a cause for much excitement among birders here.
One winter a few years back I spent a very cold and wet weekend scanning the lakes and billabongs of Ouse and Gretna in the hope of finding a pink-eared duck which was reported to have turned up in the DerwentValley. Such was the disappointment not to find it, I travelled to Victoria a little later to seek out the species there.
I was delighted to see not one but a flock of about 60 on a pond at the Werribee water treat plant between Melbourne and Geelong. The birds in the flesh, as opposed to the pictures I had studied over the years, really were a sight to behold.
Fast forward to a weekend last month when I had gone in search of not ducks, but gulls as part of the gull survey conducted by BirdLife Tasmania each winter, which I wrote about in last week’s column.
The area assigned to me embraced Goulds Lagoon at Austins Ferry and I was stunned to discover from a bird-watcher friend I met there that she had just photographed five pink-eared ducks on the reserve.
Unfortunately it was late afternoon, and I was already running behind schedule to complete the count in a given time and I could manage no more than a quick scan of the marshes, without result.
By the time I had sped back to the reserve it was nearly dark, so I was up early next morning to head back there. I found the pick-eared ducks and I can say there was no sense of anti-climax after the sighting, which often happens when you devote much time, and expense, to a quest that becomes something of an obsession over time.
I have always regarded shovellers, both the northern kind found in Britain and the Australian shoveller, as the best duck to see but now I have a new favourite.
Like the shovellers, the pink-eared duck has character. Its bill is designed for straining minute organisms, with pliable flaps at the end to channel water in a manner that allows the duck to filter a diet of plankton, as well as crustaceans, molluscs and insects, efficiently. Pink-eared ducks also feed by vortexing, in which two ducks spin about a central point with the head of one opposite the tail of the other, concentrating food in a gyrating water column.
I didn’t see a vortex, but I saw five pink-eared ducks swimming in unison, in a bigger circle, churning up the mud as they went.