An African enigma: conserving one of the world’s rarest waterbirds
White-winged Flufftail is one of the rarest, shyest and least-known of all waterbirds. However, new research by BirdLife South Africa is telling us more about it – and the best way to help it survive.
By David Callahan.
Rails and crakes are often difficult to detect, concealed among wetland sedges and reeds and reluctant to break cover. The same is true of their near relatives, the flufftails – African endemics that are similar to small crakes and named after the stub of abraded tail feathers that juts out of their rear ends. Very rare and highly reclusive, perhaps the most cryptic of all is White-winged Flufftail.
Flufftails are nine tiny waterbird species that belong to the family Sarothruridae, now split from the rail family Rallidae. All belong to the same genus (the family also includes two species of Madagascan woodrails and four species of New Guinean and Indonesian forest rails). Flufftails are shy birds, but White-winged singularly fails to herald its presence. Of the 10,369 species hosted by the bird-sound website Xeno-canto, there is no recording of White-winged Flufftail, and what recordings there are mostly circulate in academic circles.
A few fortunate individuals have succeeded in seeing the species in the field, but sightings mostly consist of flushed individuals flying away at waist height, then dropping back into cover within 30-50 metres.
If you were to see the species well in flight, you’d note the conspicuous and diagnostic white wing patches formed by the secondaries. On the ground, the unworn chestnut-and-black-barred bases of the ‘fluffy’ tail would be apparent, along with a black bill and legs and, if the bird was male, a bright chestnut head, breast and neck, white-spotted black back and wings, and black-and-white-barred flanks and vent on otherwise white underparts. If it was female, you’d note these features were duller, along with a streaked charcoal cap on its crown. Juveniles are uniformly dark grey with less robust features. Each is no longer than 16 cm from beak tip to tail tip.
In Austin Roberts’ classic guide, The Birds of Southern Africa, White-winged Flufftail was described as occurring “in marshes … and that is practically all that is known about it”. Knowledge has improved recently, but you’d still be unlikely to see White-winged Flufftail on the ground. An inhabitant of dense, high-altitude wet grassland, sedges and rushes from 1,100–2,600 metres in Ethiopia, it can be found down to sea level in South Africa. It’s choosy enough to breed only where vegetation grows to no more than a metre tall.
Analyses of stomach contents reveal its diet to be an omnivorous selection of grain, water invertebrates and vegetable matter. It is largely crepuscular when foraging, and concentrates its efforts on shallow water, wet ground and sheltered mud.
Its nest consists of a ball of woven green grass, sedge and reed about 40 cm high, with a 19cm-wide circular side entrance. It is lined with dead vegetation and holds up to five plain white eggs, the dimensions of which are no more than 2×3 cm. The precocial chicks are fluffy balls of charcoal grey down with grey eyes and black legs, raised by both parents.
Today, the species is found only in those two countries, Ethiopia and South Africa, 4,000 km apart, bracketing the sub-Saharan part of the Great Rift Valley. There are a few records from Zimbabwe, suggesting migratory dispersal, but unconfirmed sound records from Zambia and Rwanda in the 1970s are now believed to have resulted from confusion with Grey Crowned Crane, the low oop calls of which are similar but louder. White-winged Flufftail also utters ‘mooing’ notes and hoots, while the chicks cheep and click when alarmed – recording the calls is now essential in detecting the species’ presence in often perplexing environments.
In Ethiopia, it breeds in the rainy season (July-September). Breeding was unknown further south until BirdLife South Africa’s Robin Colyn and Alastair Campbell captured chicks and juveniles on their camera traps in the Middelpunt Wetlands in north-east South Africa between November 2017 and March 2018.
The species’ reclusiveness has resulted in a chequered history paralleling its fragmented range. Originally discovered in South Africa in 1876 and named the following year, it was first found in Ethiopia in 1911 (and initially described as a different species), but not seen again until 1939. Further individuals were found in 1995 near Sululta in the Oromia Region. Over that period, it was extirpated from some sites, including highland breeding habitat near Addis Ababa, by overgrazing and reed and grass cutting, actions that remain a threat.
Now, most known Ethiopian breeding sites are in the Berga wetlands near Bilacha, where a 2013 survey found a small area of 5.5 km2 is occupied by no more than 12 individuals. In 2010, only one bird was present, with no evidence of breeding. Hopes were raised when two pairs were found there in 2017, but the species was not found at all two years later.
Survey work in South Africa over the last two decades revealed 10 sites to be occupied, all located in high-altitude wetlands in East Transvaal, Free State, KwaZulu Natal and Natal. There have been counts of up to 17 birds in these areas, alongside the much commoner Red-chested Flufftail. Overall, there may be no more than 50 White-winged Flufftails left in South Africa, a vertiginous decline from an estimated 235 just 10 years ago. The main threat in the republic is the destruction of habitat due to the ever-expanding mining industry (though two mining applications in the Greater Lakenvlie Protected Area have been successfully opposed). In total, BirdLife estimates there are currently fewer than 250 adult birds in existence.
This parlous situation means White-winged Flufftail is one of the most imperilled species in the world, unfortunately well deserving of its Critically Endangered IUCN Red List status. The species was probably never common, but its disparate summer and winter distributions seem to permit two breeding seasons in one year – a gambit that might allow it to maintain its numbers in more ideal conditions.
Before new conservation strategies begin, thorough surveys and assessments must be conducted to ensure that the optimal locations are targeted and protected. Historically, the best way to check whether the species was present at a site was to flush it. Clearly, this level of disturbance couldn’t continue, and more efficient and sensitive methods had to be developed.
South African researcher Dr Kyle Lloyd began work on the species in 2020, developing self- designed motion-detector camera traps to log birds without stressing them. These traps have a tunnel of netting to keep waving reeds and branches from triggering the camera and were added to an armoury of acoustic devices, temperature loggers, colour bands and walk-in and flap traps. All were deployed en masse in October 2021 at the Steenkampsberg wetland systems of Middelpunt and Verlorenvallei wetlands in South Africa.
Data collection won’t be completed and published until 2024, but early reports are promising. Ntsikeni Nature Reserve in KwaZulu Natal held displaying birds this past austral summer, revealing itself as a new hotspot. However, a pilot survey in Zimbabwe, planned as part of an international effort, was called off due to lack of funds and logistical problems.
Raising awareness among residents, farmers and businesses is ongoing. An annual Flufftail Festival was set up by BirdLife in February 2015 in Johannesburg Zoo and continues today, moving online over the pandemic period. There are several donation projects, most notably at BackaBuddy, a South African crowdfunding platform. Furthermore, Dr Lloyd explained: “We are partnering with Meat Naturally [an African sustainable farming campaigning organisation] to … keep cattle out of the reserve and equip the community with the means to better manage bordering communal grasslands and sell products in a competitive market.”
Can Ecotourism Help?
Some White-winged Flufftail sites have ecotourism potential, but many factors still hinder the effective conservation of this bijou waterbird. Some reserves – notably Ntsikeni – have been effectively abandoned to cattle grazing, with the grassland outside the perimeters mismanaged and of too poor quality for flufftails. The presence of livestock erodes soil and reduces nesting and feeding sites, allowing the colonisation of invasive alien and unpalatable native plants and increased predation.
Underfunding, understaffing and lack of training budgets and law enforcement facilitate wildfires and game poaching, and prevents the development or maintenance of visitor infrastructure. Targeting funding at these problems would raise a healthy awareness of the benefits of conservation by providing community investment and employment in an area where almost half of adults are jobless.
Ethiopia’s White-winged Flufftail Project, started by the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society, was completed in 2015. Research into the species’ numbers and distribution in the country was carried out and awareness among local people raised by workshops and a widely distributed brochure. The main surveys in 2012–13 revealed that 10 potential areas contained no birds, but that a few pairs still nested on the Berga Wetlands.
Fencing off small areas of breeding habitat and regular patrols have continued there to this day. Since then, the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds has contracted BirdLife South Africa to establish a Community-based Conservation Programme for the species. Initial habitat assessments and site visits in the Upper Berga Floodplain were completed in 2020, with the long-term strategy of making the wetlands and agricultural grasslands of the whole upper Berga Valley “ecologically, economically and socially sustainable [with] integrated rural development”.
Currently, only an unviable 160 hectares of suitable habitat remains, mostly within dairy farming areas, but it’s hoped that eventually 60 per cent of the whole region will be viable for White- winged Flufftail. Threats continue to mount, and climate change now threatens future restoration of the area, as overall water capacity will decrease.
But the major problems are recognised, and as the range and habits of White-winged Flufftail are better known, the task of preserving the species has taken shape. Dr Lloyd promises “several other conservation projects being finalised over the next few months”. This includes the official designation of Middlepunt Nature Reserve, the species only known breeding site in South Africa. Co-managed by BirdLife South Africa, a management plan for the reserve is being developed, with the hopes it will be designated as a Ramsar wetland of international importance in the coming years.
While the future remains uncertain, there is hope that the two disjunct breeding ranges can be kept viable and successful. The recent discovery that the two country’s populations are genetically the same and constantly interchange should help sustain a more connected international effort to make this possible.
You can help BirdLife South Africa protect the species by donating here.
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