Europe and Central Asia
14 Nov 2017

Tagging the elusive White-headed Duck

By Danara Zharbolova & Alyona Koshkina

Danara Zharbolova and Alyona Koshkina from our Kazakh partner ACBK tell us about their first attempts to catch and tag the elusive White-headed Duck with geolocators out on the lakes of the Central Kazakhstan.


The White-headed duck Oxyura leucocephala, with its long tail (often cocked vertically) and striking blue bill, is an unmistakable sight – if you are actually lucky enough to spot one out in the wild. European populations have markedly declined in the last 10 years due to habitat loss, making this famously elusive waterbird even more of a rarity. It is classified globally Endangered by the IUCN Red List. Due to its furtive behaviour and rarity, this species has not been studied extensively. In recent years, BirdLife and several of its partners have been working to change this. In 2015, the White-headed duck was selected as one of sixteen iconic European bird species for the EU-funded LIFE EuroSAP project which aims to address population decline on a continental scale. SEO-BirdLife Spain, together with AEWA (The African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement), has been coordinating efforts to identify threats and conservation measures to feed into a revised International Species Action Plan.

At the same time, BirdLife’s Kazakh partner ACBK (Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan) has been working to learn more about the migration of the Central Asia population which nests mainly in Northern and Central Kazakhstan and the steppes of Southern Russia.

© Alyona Koshkina

This summer, ACBK, working with a group of ornithologists from Russia, tagged four White-headed ducks with geolocators at key moulting sites on the lakes of the Tengiz-Korgalzhyn Region of Central Kazakhstan.

Lake Ashchikol has become a popular site for moulting and migration gatherings for many waterbirds – pochards, grebes, coots, Red-necked phalaropes and White-headed ducks. Between the end of August and the end of September, some 2,500 White-headed ducks were counted within a 5 km2 area.

 © Irina Grigorieva

Aleksey Bagaev, one of the participants relates his experience: “We would start our field work at 4am. In the steppe, we would inflate the boat and lower it down onto the water. Then our small flotilla would spread the nets to catch the ducks.  On the shore, we would talk tactics. As this bird-catching technique had never been used before, it was difficult to predict the outcome of our operation. We did know, however, that the White-headed duck is a very cautious bird and skilled diver.”

 © Irina Grigorieva

Team leader and ACBK Science Fellow, Alyona Koshkina, also told us a little bit about the work: “We chose lightweight geolocators because safe techniques for attaching heavier equipment onto this small bird have not yet been developed. This is a problem with studying diving ducks generally, as their specific biology must be taken into account. Considering how labour-intensive this process is, the chances of recapturing the same individuals are slim. We can now either perfect this method to improve results or continue looking for a different approach – but this is a challenge for future research projects.

 © Irina Grigorieva


Though we were only able to tag a small number of birds, we were still able to learn a lot about the behaviour of this mysterious species, which will eventually lead to more efficient research techniques into bird migration. With support from the Rufford Foundation, in 2017 ACBK purchased 33 geolocators that we will use to tag nesting and moulting birds in the coming years.

This tagging work with our Russian colleagues from the NGO Ecological Centre Strizh was conducted as part of the Conservation Leadership Programme Knowledge Exchange project. ACBK has been studying the White-headed Duck since 2013 with support from the Forestry and Wildlife Committee of the Ministry of Agriculture of the Republic of Kazakhstan and the Korgalzhyn State Nature Reserve.


Danara Zharbolova – Head of Communications, ACBK (BirdLife Kazakhstan)

 Alyona Koshkina (ACBK Science Fellow)


Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe.

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.