17 Feb 2018

Rewrite the bird books: new breeding site found for one of world's rarest birds

The White-winged Flufftail (Critically Endangered) has just been confirmed to be breeding in South Africa – not only Ethiopia as previously thought – thanks to a discovery by BirdLife South Africa’s hidden camera traps. This sheds new light on the bird’s conservation.

Celebrating the discovery at Middlepunt Wetland, South Africa © Niall Perrins
Celebrating the discovery at Middlepunt Wetland, South Africa © Niall Perrins
By Jessica Law

Everything we thought we knew about the White-winged Flufftail Sarothrura ayresi has been shaken up by recent footage captured by camera trap technology. At Middelpunt Wetland in South Africa, a site previously thought to cater only to non-breeding visiting Flufftails, strange photos were recorded. They depicted intriguing wing-flapping behavior, with both males and females displaying their white wing feathers. Could it be that something more than feeding was going on? It seemed almost too good to be true. But later, the ultimate proof appeared – the unmistakable image of a rotund, speckled juvenile scuttling through the undergrowth. This new knowledge changes everything.

 

Watch BirdLife South Africa's video about the discovery

 

We need all the knowledge we can get if we want to stop the White-winged Flufftail from becoming the first recorded extinction of a mainland African bird. With recent estimates numbering fewer than 250 mature individuals, this beautiful but elusive species is declining fast. Its high-altitude wetland habitats are being degraded by human activity: over-grazing by cattle, burning, conversion for agriculture and the build-up of pollution. That’s why BirdLife South Africa, the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society (BirdLife in Ethiopia), and initiatives both local and worldwide* have joined forces to create a Species Action Plan that protects this bird on the brink.

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A White-winged Flufftail in Ethiopia - thought to be its only breeding site, until now © Sergey Dereliev

 

Here’s what we thought we knew: the White-winged Flufftail is only regularly found in Ethiopia and South Africa. Recent DNA samples taken from feathers collected in both countries have shown them to be genetically similar, implying they are the same population and migrate 4,000 km between the two countries. First they breed at the Berga Wetland in Ethiopia during July and August, then travel to the high-altitude wetlands in the eastern reaches of South Africa from November to March.

But it’s hard to gather any information at all about this secretive species. One of the main problems is that it’s not clear what its call sounds like. This means that the species has to be seen to be recorded. And so, over the past two years, BirdLife South Africa’s Robin Colyn and ecologist Alastair Campbell developed an innovative camera trap system to survey the cryptic Flufftail, dubbed the BirdLife South Africa Rallid Survey Method.

 

Robin Colyn and Alastair Campbell installed pioneering camera trap technology to record the Flufftail © Carina Coetzer

 

The cameras were set up at Middelpunt Wetland near Belfast, South Africa, and after sifting through about 400,000 photographs triggered by shrews and other small mammals the team were flabbergasted. First they captured the never-before-seen wing-flapping behaviour. Then, encouraged, Robin and Alistair refined their technique and upped the number of cameras to 20. And that’s when they found solid proof of breeding.

The White-winged Flufftail is precocial, meaning chicks leave the nest and start wandering around soon after hatching. Thanks to this independent behaviour, cameras caught chicks ranging from only a couple of days old to juvenile birds which were about four weeks old. In fact, 125,000 images show at least three clutches, and at least two mating attempts.

 

Juvenile Flufftails start to forage independently at a very young age © BirdLife South Africa

 

“The bird books will need to be re-written!” enthused Mark Anderson, CEO of BirdLife South Africa. “We now have 100% confirmation that the White-winged Flufftail breeds at Middelpunt wetland.”

“This confirms that the White-winged Flufftail is not a “non-breeding visitor” to South Africa”, says Robin Colyn, BirdLife South Africa.

A new breeding site doesn’t necessarily mean greater numbers, however. “We are still unsure what our findings mean for White-winged Flufftail conservation,” says Dr Hanneline Smit-Robinson, BirdLife South Africa’s Terrestrial Bird Conservation Programme Manager. “Our survey method did, however, confirm a low abundance, therefore until further knowledge, our assumption holds that this species is extremely rare and it remains on the brink of extinction.”

Knowledge is power in the race to keep this species alive in the wild. Dr Smit-Robinson adds: “BirdLife South Africa would like to expand its use of the newly developed Rallid Survey Method to at least another three wetlands in South Africa to confirm the presence of, and hopefully breeding by, White-winged Flufftails at these sites.”

 

An adult female was caught on camera displaying her white wing feathers © BirdLife South Africa

 

‘Flufftail’ is a charming name for a bird – and makes sense when you see its stumpy tail spread out into a beautifully scalloped fan shape. But there’s nothing fluffy about its future. Middelpunt Wetland is a Protected Environment run by a private landowner in collaboration with BirdLife South Africa, but the Flufftail may also be breeding in more dangerous areas that we don’t yet know about. Now that we’ve worked out the method to discover more about this bird, we need to make sure we use it to its full advantage.

“At last, we’re a step closer to solving the mystery of the ‘migration’ of one of the world’s rarest birds,” says Andy Symes, BirdLife International Red List Team. “But there is still a great deal to learn, and we encourage people to support BirdLife South Africa to enable them to collect more data in order to ensure that this highly threatened species can get the protection it so desperately needs.”

Donate now to help BirdLife South Africa reach their target of buying another 60 camera traps for use in the 2018/19 breeding seasons.


This story is brought to you by the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme.

 

References

1. Colyn R, Campbell A, Smit-Robinson HA. 2017. The application of camera trapping to assess rallidae species richness within wetland habitat types, eastern Free State, South Africa. Ostrich 88: 235-245.

2. Dalton DL, Smit-Robinson HA, Vermaak E, Jarvis E, Kotzé A. 2017.  Is there genetic connectivity among the Critically Endangered Whited-winged Flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi) populations from South Africa and Ethiopia? African Journal of Ecology 56: 28-37.

 

Notes

*Flufftail Species Action Plan: The implementation of a conservation plan (International White-winged Flufftail Single Species Action Plan) through the collaborative efforts of BirdLife South Africa, Middelpunt Wetland Trust and the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society (The BirdLife Partner in Ethiopia) is being undertaken under the auspices of the White-winged Flufftail International Working Group, African Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement (AEWA).

Flufftail in Ethiopia

Few bird species breed at only one locality, which puts the White-winged Flufftail at significant extinction risk. For the past 14 years, the Ethiopian BirdLife partner, the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society, together with Middelpunt Wetland Trust and Rockjumper Worldwide Birding Adventures (a BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme Species Champion), have worked with the community at Berga to ensure that the wetland is protected from grazing by cattle, horses and sheep during the flufftail breeding season in the boreal summer. At the same time, initiatives led by BirdLife South Africa have attempted to conserve high altitude wetland sites known to host this species in South Africa.