The White-winged Flufftail was the BirdLife South Africa Bird of the Year for 2013. In sharp contrast to the species selected in previous years, this flufftail is rarely seen and little known. The White-winged Flufftail is Critically Endangered. The species is an enigma; it is a wetland species that occurs in South Africa and Ethiopia, but essentially, according to our knowledge, nowhere in between. It has made erratic appearances , perhaps, lingering a while at some wetlands, moving on at others. The bird’s presence is only ever detected when it is put to flight and gives a fleeting view as it speeds away before dropping back out of sight into the marshy vegetation.
In the 1940 edition of his renowned book on South African birds, Austin Roberts wrote “the White-winged Flufftail is an extremely rare bird … it occurs in marshes and that is practically all that is known about it”. Not a great deal more has been learnt about the bird in the intervening period.
The continued survival of the species in both Ethiopia and South Africa is of mounting concern. Through the involvement of BirdLife South Africa, the Middelpunt Wetland Trust and the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society, measures are to be put in place to conserve this enigmatic species.
It is one of nine flufftail species, a family related to crakes and rails, and all are small, secretive, ground-living birds that typically reveal their presence only by their ghostly hooting calls.
White-winged Flufftails are small, almost mouse-like birds weighing a mere 30-35 grams according to published literature. Birds recently weighed in Berga wetland, Ethiopia, by the BirdLife South Africa research team weighed between 25 and 35g, averaging a mere 30g. They are streaked, with brownish plumage, a rusty head, chest and tail, a wingspan of about 16 cm, and broad characteristic white secondary wing feathers that briefly render them conspicuous in flight.
Whereas the calls of the other species are well-known, there is much confusion about the calls of the White-winged Flufftail, and this compounds the inherent problem of finding and learning more about the species.
The White-winged Flufftail is an endemic resident to Africa and is only known to occur in high altitude wetlands of South Africa and Ethiopia. There are isolated records from Zambia and Zimbabwe. It is speculated that the bird migrates between these two countries, arriving at suitable habitat within South Africa in summer. However, this has not been proved.
Ten years ago the South African population, was estimated at 235 non breeding individuals occurring in ten sites ranging from 50–1,000 ha in area and at altitudes of 1,300 – 1,870 m in the east of the country. The only known breeding population, estimated at 201+ pairs is found at three sites in highland marshes in the central highlands of Ethiopia near Addis Ababa. More recent estimates show that there is a mere 50 birds left in South Africa and less than 250 globally.
Map A: Distribution of White-winged Flufftail. Dark Blue = regular occurrence; Light Blue = erratic records
White-winged Flufftails have rather specific habitat needs. In Ethiopia they favour seasonal flooded wetlands, stretches of grass and sedge standing about knee-height in ankle-deep water in summer. In South Africa, by contrast, the wetlands used by these flufftails are permanently or semi-permanently wet, and they are typically sponges located near the headwaters of rivers in the eastern Highveld, which are wet underfoot, and dominated by the sedge Carex acutiformis, a broad-leafed plant that forms a closed canopy about 1-1½ m high above the ground layer of damp ground or shallow water.
The presence or absence of the birds here seems linked to water-level - they are absent when it is too deep or too dry. Fire occurrence and grazing pressure might also play a role, but this still needs to be tested by a field experiment. Much remains to be learnt about this bird's habitat requirements and guesswork needs to be replaced by fact.
Until 1996 the White-winged Flufftail had only been found at Middelpunt, Wakkerstroom and Franklin Vlei. The Middelpunt Wetland Trust then funded Dr Barry Taylor, a renowned world Rallidae expert, to travel to Ethiopia to study a site at Weserbi. Here, during an IBA survey in 1995, the bird was miraculously "rediscovered". Dr Taylor found that the bird occurred in a mixed-grass marshland habitat that was in total variance to the Carex sedge of its South African habitat. He also discovered a female with three chicks — the first recorded breeding site.
On his return to South Africa, this discovery prompted him to investigate wetlands which approximated the Ethiopian habitat. This led to the discovery of two new sites in East Griqualand: Hebron and Penny Park, and four in the highlands of the Eastern Free State: Murphy’s Rust, Chatsworth, Vanger and Zeekoeivlei.
In South Africa it is severely threatened by habitat destruction and degradation, including impacts of mining activities, wetland drainage, various agriculture-related activities including crop farming, afforestation, grazing, water abstraction, horticulture, peat fires, draining, erosion, siltation, fences and developments such as roads, dams and buildings. Its habitat is believed to be undergoing a continuing decline. For example, all potentially suitable White-winged Flufftail wetland habitat around Durban has been destroyed as a result of intensive agriculture (especially sugarcane farming), industrialization and the proliferation of human settlements.
The marshes occupied by the breeding population in Ethiopia are intensively grazed and threats include trampling and grazing by livestock and cutting of marsh vegetation for fodder. Livestock numbers are increasingly growing and the resultant grazing severely reduces the sward length in breeding habitat. Grasses and sedges are also cut for the culturally important Ethiopian coffee ceremony.
The species is listed as Critically Endangered in The Eskom Red Data Book of Birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland (Barnes 2000), and was uplisted to Critically Endangered on the IUCN red data list in 2013.
The Middelpunt Wetland and the Middelpunt Wetland Trust
The White-winged Flufftail was discovered in Middelpunt wetland in 1981. The bird was not seen at this site again until 1990 when a group of birders, including Deon Coetzee, went to search the marsh for the bird. A single bird was flushed. The fact that the bird was only known to occur at three sites in South Africa, together with the almost total lack of scientific knowledge about it caused great concern. This led Deon Coetzee to start negotiating with the owner of the farm to lease the wetland to enable constructive conservation action and research to be conducted. Deon initiated the Middelpunt Wetland Trust in 1994 to create a formal vehicle for this work. In 1995 the trust entered into a ten-year lease with the landowner.
The Trust is currently administered by BirdLife South Africa. The Trustees are:
Roger Wanless (Chairman)
Dr Warwick Tarboton
Dr Hanneline Smit-Robinson
Despite efforts over the last few years by conservationists, there is still very little known about the White-winged Flufftail. In 2011 BirdLife South Africa launched a research project with the following aims:
1. Determine the migratory connection
The aim was to catch and subsequently release between five and ten White-winged Flufftails, to obtain blood and feather samples for genetic and isotope analyses. The analyses of the blood and feather samples would indicate whether the two populations in Ethiopia and South Africa are isolated, or whether it is one population migrating between the two countries.
August 2013: The White-winged Flufftail research team, including Hanneline Smit-Robinson, Craig Symes, Brett Gardner and Malcolm Drummond, travelled to Ethiopia and managed to take blood and feather samples for genetic and isotope studies from seven White-winged Flufftail in Berga wetland.
September 2013: A White-winged Flufftail was reported from King Shaka airport on 5 September. After more than 100 years without any new confirmed sightings, apart from a record by B. Taylor of a White-winged Flufftail in coastal wetlands at Mfabeni, St Lucia, KwaZulu-Natal, scientists started to dispute the records of White-winged Flufftail found in the vleis around Durban. However, the observations of A. Millar were confirmed when Marius van Rooyen, Senior Wildlife Control Officer, reported that a flufftail has been found on site in the high security areas at King Shaka airport. An airport staff member found the bird alive alongside a close-mesh fence along a road lining the main runways about 09h00 in the morning and handed it over to the Wildlife Control staff. The Wildlife Control staff took it to their office where it was photographed. Being unsure about the species identification, they forwarded photos to David Allan, Curator of Birds at the Durban Natural Science Museum. The bird was released at the site where it was found two hours later and before David Allan could open the photographs. The bird was positively identified as White-winged Flufftail. In an attempt to relocate the bird for a blood and feather sample to be taken, the surrounding grasslands/damp wetlands has subsequently been searched without success.
December 2013: While undertaking a survey of the wetland at Middelpunt Greg Davies, ornithologist at the Ditsong Museum in Pretoria and currently contracted to do the wetlands surveys over the summer of 2013/2014, flushed a White-winged Flufftail at the Middelpunt wetland near Dullstroom. Two attempts at trapping the bird subsequently took place, but were unsuccessful.
January 2014: A male White-winged Flufftail was unexpectedly caught in a mistnet by Dirk van Stuyvenberg at Wakkerstroom. At long last blood and feather samples from a South African bird were collect, enabling us to solve the mystery of the migratory connection between South Africa and Ethiopia.
February 2014: A second bird was successfully netted and sampled at the farm Middelpunt near Dullstroom. This sample, along with other samples taken in South Africa and Ethiopia, has been submitted for DNA and isotope analyses and we are eagerly awaiting the results.
2. Conduct surveys of suitable wetland habitat in South Africa
Intense surveys will be done at all high altitude grasslands in South Africa to discover sites that could potentially provide suitable habitat for White-winged Fluffftail. Habitat and water quality will also be determined at all these sites. This monitoring is essential in order to get a better understanding of numbers and requirements of the species. This will help a great deal in developing a better informed plan to better protect this Critically Endangered species.
Habitat at confirmed White-winged Flufftail sites will be conserved by liaison with landowners through BirdLife South Africa’s Important Bird and Biodiversity Area network.
Greg Davies commenced in-depth surveys of known and potential sites across South Africa during the summer of 2013/2014. Although only one bird has been observed to date, their surveys have revealed lots of suitable habitat where the bird may occur.
3. Uplist the White-winged Flufftail to Critically Endangered on the IUCN’s Red List
In 2013 BirdLife South Africa and Middelpunt Wetland Trust actively campaigned for the uplisting of the White-winged Flufftail to Globally Critically Endangered. (See http://www.birdlife.org/globally-threatened-bird-forums/2013/05/white-winged-flufftail-sarothrura-ayresi-uplist-to-critically-endangered/). Such a revision of the IUCN red list status will open up additional funding opportunities and would greatly galvanize our efforts to conserve the species.
In November 2013 the White-winged Flufftail was uplisted to Globally Critically Endangered on the IUCN red list. It is now only one of two South African species to share this status, the other being the Tristan Albatross.
4. Construct a research facility for detailed study of the White-winged Flufftail
A breeding facility will be constructed with input from Mr Colin Wintle, the current world expert on the captive keeping of crakes, rails and flufftails. Mr Wintle, who now lives in the UK, successfully kept these species in Zimbabwe. A handful (< 10) of Red-chested Flufftails (a closely related species with similar habitat requirements to White-winged Flufftails) will be obtained in South Africa under the necessary permits and with the private landowners’ permission. The Red-chested Flufftails will be kept at the facility at the National Zoological Gardens in Pretoria and will be used to master the flufftail’s needs in captivity and serve as an attraction to raise the profile of the flufftail and wetland conservation.
Only once the keeping of Red-chested Flufftails is mastered will White-winged Flufftail be introduced to the facility. Research will be undertaken in collaboration with Prof. Andrew McKechnie at the University of Pretoria in order to study the call, behaviour and habitat requirements of the species.
5. Foster community support in Ethiopia
The Middelpunt Wetland Trust has long understood the need to protect the vegetation at the Berga breeding site against overgrazing and grass cutting during the July/August breeding season. As a means of gaining the support of the local community, the Trust has provided financial support over the past ten years for the building of a school for the community. The newest school block was made possible through the generous support of Rockjumper Birding Tours. Prior to this, the nearest school was eight kilometres away. Today, 700 children receive their primary school education in the village. Well aware of the value of the flufftail to the community, the site support group patrols the wetland during the breeding season to prevent grazing and grass cutting.
August 2013: Hanneline Smit-Robinson and Malcolm Drummond met with the school committee to discuss progress and future plans.
February 2013: More than R33,000 was raised for the Local Concervation Group during public viewings of the White-winged Flufftail at Middelpunt.
What you can do to help
Blood, feather and/or tissue samples are still required for all flufftail species to complete their phylogenetic profile. Please report all sightings of flufftails (including White-winged Flufftail) to Dr Hanneline Smit-Robinson, Conservation Manager (Oppenheimer Fellow of Conservation) at firstname.lastname@example.org or 011 789 1122.
Any contribution would be of great scientific value.
A word of thanks to our sponsors
All research is made possible through the generous support of Eskom, who acts as Species Champion for the White-winged Flufftail under BirdLife International's Preventing Extinction Programme.