23 Apr 2019

White-winged Flufftail's call recorded for the first time

With a population of 250, this secretive bird has always been hard to study, but advances in technology have helped us to discover more than ever. Last year, we found new breeding grounds - then its call was identified for the first time. Is this the final piece in the puzzle to protect this bird?

The White-winged Flufftail is one of Africa's rarest birds © Sergey Dereliev
The White-winged Flufftail is one of Africa's rarest birds © Sergey Dereliev
By Margaret Sessa-Hawkins

In December last year, the call of one of the world’s rarest birds was identified and recorded for the first time by our Partner BirdLife South Africa. With fewer than 250 mature individuals remaining in the wild, the White-winged Flufftail Sarothrura ayresi is Critically Endangered, and at severe risk of extinction. Restricted to high-altitude wetland habitats in South Africa and Ethiopia, the flufftail’s secretive nature makes it hard to monitor the species’ behaviour, which in turn makes it harder to know how best to protect it.

Before the call was discovered, surveying an area for the bird meant trying to flush it out, either on foot or by using a rope. This method, however, was intensive, slow, and yielded few sightings. Then in 2016, BirdLife South Africa developed an innovative method to survey the species called the BirdLife South Africa Rallid Survey Method. It uses a camera trap system to record the flufftail’s behaviour.  In February last year, the camera traps discovered surprising evidence that the species, which was thought to only breed in Ethiopia and visit South Africa, was actually breeding in South Africa as well.

However, even with this system in place, it has been difficult for researchers to survey new habitats to check for flufftail without knowledge of its call. Previously, the team has only been able to survey one or two wetlands a year to check for the elusive bird. Then, in December last year, a scientists linked a previously unknown, low-pitched call with photographs of a White-winged Flufftail exhibiting territorial behaviour.

This new discovery could prove to be good news not just for the White-winged Flufftail, but for other species too. “This method is also able to give us data on other wetland animals such as birds, frogs and small mammals,” says Robin Colyn, a project manager at BirdLife South Africa. “The White-winged Flufftail is thereby acting as a critical flagship species promoting the assessment and conservation of high-altitude wetland ecosystems across its range.”

In order to protect the species' exact location, BirdLife South Africa have chosen not to share the recording of the flufftail's call. Find out more about the discovery on BirdLife South Africa’s website.