Breaking News: One of the greatest mysteries about the Critically Endangered White-winged Flufftail solved
One of the greatest ornithological mysteries, representing more than a decade’s work, has been solved! The White-winged Flufftail is one of Africa’s rarest and most threatened wetland birds. It is largely restricted to high-altitude wetland habitats in South Africa and Ethiopia. The current population is estimated to number only 200 and 250 birds and, in light of habitat loss and degradation over the past 10 years, this species faces a significant risk of extinction. Owing to the White-winged Flufftail’s secretive and elusive behaviour, it is regarded as one of the most enigmatic species in Africa. Through the development and implementation of novel and innovative research and monitoring methods, BirdLife South Africa’s scientists have made numerous breakthroughs that have contributed to our understanding of this Critically Endangered species. The greatest of which has been the identification and recording of the species’ call for the first time, which, together with the discovery of it’s breeding in South Africa earlier this year, has reshaped our understanding of, and ability to, conserve the White-winged Flufftail.
The species was first discovered and described in 1877 by Thomas Ayres and John H. Gurney. However, since its discovery over 140 years ago, numerous aspects of its ecology, behaviour and status have largely remained veiled in mystery. The gaps in our understanding related to this species are such, that it is one of the only southern African bird species for which we do not have an undisputed record of its call.
Previous ‘oop’ vocalisations attributed to the White-winged Flufftail have been disputed in the past due to their similarity to the roosting call of the Grey Crowned Crane, which is often observed in the same wetlands as the White-winged Flufftail. The presumed belief that this species was largely silent has been one of the main stumbling blocks hindering the ability to survey the presence of this species across its range. Bird calls are used worldwide to record the presence and even determine population sizes of various species.
Over the past three years, BirdLife South Africa’s Robin Colyn and Eskom’s ecologist Alastair Campbell have been leading the development of a novel innovative monitoring system, dubbed the BirdLife South Africa Rallid Survey Method (Colyn et al. 2017, Ostrich 88: 235-245, Colyn et al. 2018, Bird Conservation International in press), for the White-winged Flufftail and other rare and elusive ground dwelling wetland birds, specifically focused on targeting flufftail species. This system involved the use of both camera and acoustic equipment and was deployed in the wetlands during the summer months during the previous three years.
In February 2018, a call was identified by Robin Colyn through the acoustic monitoring system at a South African wetland that did not match any known calls on record. The unknown call corresponded to photographs taken simultaneously by carefully placed camera “traps”. These photos showed a male White-winged Flufftail exhibiting territorial behaviour. Robin Colyn explains “The call was unique in that it differed significantly from most other flufftail species and occurred within an extremely low frequency range, making it very difficult to distinguish amongst the wetland soundscape of other birds and frogs”.
Further scrutiny of the very large dataset of bird recordings yielded more than a dozen such records and provided the foundation that was used to solve one of the greatest ornithological bird mysteries in Africa. In August 2018 the soft staccato clicking that is now attributed to White-winged Flufftail was also successfully recorded in the breeding grounds in Ethiopia and has confirmed this vocalisation on both extremities of the species’ range in Africa by the BirdLife South Africa team (Robin Colyn, Dr Melissa Whitecross and Caroline Howes).
The breakthroughs achieved are crucial in informing our understanding of the conservation status and requirements of this threatened species. As a result, BirdLife South Africa is able to more efficiently direct conservation efforts and resources to promote the persistence of this species across the continent.
BirdLife South Africa and the Middelpunt Wetland Trust (a trust started solely for the conservation of White-winged Flufftail and its habitat), in collaboration with other institutions, have rolled out a number of research projects to focus on the conservation of the White-winged Flufftail.
Malcom Drummond, one of the founding members of the Middelpunt Wetland Trust, expressed his feelings about this discovery: “Over the years, many different techniques, mostly time-consuming and intrusive, have been used to try and ascertain whether or not White-winged Flufftails are present at a wetland. Audio detection brings a whole new dimension to site identification, allowing many more sites to be non-intrusively investigated with far greater accuracy.”
BirdLife South Africa would like to acknowledge the generous funding and support provided by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), Eskom (Ingula Partnership), Airports Company South Africa and the BirdLife International Species Champion for the White-winged Flufftail - Rockjumper Birding Adventures.
For more information contact:
KEM-JV Fellow of Conservation, Birdlife South Africa
Phone: 076 833 8454
Dr Hanneline Smit-Robinson, Manager: Terrestrial Bird Conservation Programme/Oppenheimer Fellow of Conservation, BirdLife South Africa.
Phone: 011 789 1122/082 453 4714
Dr Melissa Whitecross
Threatened Species Project Manager
Phone: 011 789 1122/082 452 6021
Dr Melissa Whitecross, Caroline Howes and Robin Colyn celebrate after confirming the call of the White-winged Flufftail in Ethiopia.
The White-winged Flufftail research team after removing the camera traps and audio equipment from Middelpunt Wetland (from left) Carina Coetzer, Dr Melissa Whitecross, Dr Hanneline Smit-Robinson, Robin Colyn and Alastair Campbell.
White-winged Flufftail Male. Photo: Miona Janeke
Colyn, R.B., Campbell, A.M. and Smit-Robinson, H.A. (2017) The application of camera trapping to assess Rallidae species richness within palustrine wetland habitat in South Africa. Ostrich 88(3): 1-11.
Colyn, R.B., Campbell, A.M. and Smit-Robinson, H.A. (2018) Camera-trapping successfully and non-invasively reveals the presence, activity and habitat choice of the Critically Endangered White-winged Flufftail Sarothrura ayresi in a South African high-altitude wetland. Bird Conservation International: In press.
White-winged Flufftail male. Photo: Miona Janeke
The White-winged Flufftail is a small, elusive bird and is one of nine flufftail species in Africa. They are only known to occur, with any regularity, in the high-altitude wetlands of South Africa and Ethiopia. The White-winged Flufftail is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN and considered to be on the brink of extinction. It is one of South Africa’s rarest birds, and it is estimated that there are only 50 birds left in South Africa, and perhaps as few as 250 remaining throughout its global range. Its preferred habitat is severely threatened by habitat degradation and destruction.
BirdLife South Africa, Middelpunt Wetland Trust and the BirdLife partner in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society, are raising the profile of the ‘Critically Endangered’ White-winged Flufftail and are mapping out a conservation plan for the species.
White-winged Flufftail male. Photo: Arno Ellmer
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.
Left: White-winged Flufftail male. Photo: Miona Janeke
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.
White-winged Flufftail male. Photo: Arno Ellmer
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 (Taylor et al. 2015), and was uplisted to Critically Endangered on the IUCN red data list in 2013.
Right: The team in Berga Wetland, Ethiopia, collecting samples for genetic analyses. Photo: Miona Janeke
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.
Left: Middelpunt Wetland Photo: Morné Fourie
The Trust is currently administered by BirdLife South Africa. The Trustees are:
Roger Wanless (Chairperson)
Dr Hanneline Smit-Robinson
The role of the AEWA White-winged Flufftail International Working Group is to coordinate and catalyse the implementation of a 10-year action plan: the International White-winged Flufftail Single Species Action Plan (ISSAP), developed in 2008. During the 2015 meeting held in Addis Ababa, a 3 year Implementation Plan (2015 – 2018), based on the ISSAP, was developed. HSR has been appointed as the coordinator of the AEWA White-winged Flufftail International Working Group.
Left: Attendees of 2nd meeting of the AEWA White-winged Flufftail International Working Group which took place on 10 and 11 August 2015 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The Department of Environmental Affairs has initiated a White-winged Flufftail National Working Group, chaired by Malcolm Drummond, Middelpunt Wetland Trust, under their auspices. Discussions at the National Working Group meetings are mainly focused around the actions highlighted in the 2015 – 2018 Implementation Plan.
Despite efforts over the last few years by conservationists, there is still very little known about the White-winged Flufftail.
BirdLife South Africa and Middelpunt Wetland Trust are currently focusing their research and conservation efforts on the following International Single Species Action Plan (ISSAP) actions:
1. Determine the migratory connection
Through collaboration with the National Zoological Gardens (National Research Foundation) and the University of the Witwatersrand, research is being undertaken to understand the migratory connection, if any, between the populations of White-winged Flufftail in South Africa and Ethiopia. In addition, further genetic sequencing and analyses will help to enhance future research and conservation action.
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.
August 2015: A subsequent three blood and feather samples were collected from White-winged Flufftails in Berga wetland by the research team.
November 2016: Prof. Antoinette Kotzé and her team has been involved in scientific research to unravel the mysteries of the White-winged Flufftail.To date, no studies on immunogenetic variation in the White-winged Flufftail have been undertaken and this study is likely the first to describe the Toll-like receptor genetic diversity in a Critically Endangered species. The paper, entitled, “Lack of diversity at innate immunity Toll-like receptor genes in the Critically Endangered White-winged Flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi)”, confirms low genetic diversity in the innate immune regions of the White-winged Flufftail similar to that observed in other bird species that have undergone population bottlenecks. The species is thus likely to be more vulnerable to changes in the environment, e.g.
exposure to a new disease. It is critical that the conservation and research currently conducted be continued and that the habitat for the White-winged Flufftail be protected from any additional human impacts.
September 2017: A third genetic paper published. The complete mitogenome sequence of the species was determined. The White-winged Flufftail mitogenome constitutes the first whole mitochondrial genome entry within the Sarothruridae family. The size of the genome is reported as 16,767 bp and comprises 13 protein-coding genes, 2 rRNAs and 22 tRNAs. This research is the first to confirm the relatedness (phylogenetic position) of the White-winged Flufftail to order species within the order Gruiformes (Figure 1). The organization of the genome of the species is comparable to that of other bird species.
Figure 1: Taken from Du Plessis et al. 2017. In order to evaluate its relative position within the order Gruiformes a phylogenetic tree (maximum-likelihood) was constructed to place the White-winged Flufftail among species representing the Rallidae, Gruidae, Heliornithidae and Otididae Families.
BirdLife South Africa and National Zoological Gardens geneticists show that South African and Ethiopian birds are genetically similar, with only three minor sequence variations between the two populations (Dalton et al. 2018, African Journal of Ecology 56: 28-37).
This research is the first to confirm genetic connectivity between the South African and Ethiopian populations of White-winged Flufftail. In this study, analysis of mitochondrial (COI, Cytb, 12S/Val/16S) and nuclear (ADH-5, GPD3-5 and bfib7) markers was conducted for White-winged Flufftail samples from South African (n = 3) and Ethiopian (n = 7) birds, as well as Red-chested Flufftail for species comparison. Analyses of the DNA regions identified only three interspecific variations between the two populations, supporting the hypothesis that these two populations are not different species or sub-species but are rather one migrating population, having separate ranges during the different seasons in Ethiopia and South Africa respectively
List of peer-reviewed genetic publications:
2. Conduct surveys of suitable wetland habitat in South Africa
Greg Davies completed in-depth surveys of known and potential White-winged Flufftail sites across South Africa during the summer of 2013/2014.
3. Rallidae camera trap study at Middelpunt and Ingula Wetlands
The rallidae family in a southern African context includes rails, crakes, gallinules, swamphens, moorhens and coots. The flufftail and crake genera are the smallest bodied and most elusive species within this family that generally forage on the ground, particularly the Sarothrura, Porzana, Rallus and Crex genera. Subsequently, their elusive, cryptic and ground foraging behaviour in often dense wetland vegetation have resulted in them being relatively difficult to accurately study. To date, the most widely utilized method of surveying these species have involved invasive forms of monitoring such as line transects and rope dragging surveys.
A very successful 2016/2017 rallidae camera-trap survey at the Middelpunt wetland delivered more than 13 independent sightings of the Critically Endangered White-winged Flufftail. This novel, non-invasive technique developed by BirdLife South Africa has yielded more successful and conclusive sightings of this elusive species than the previous eight years of human flush surveys combined. Additionally, the study highlighted numerous facets of the species biology and behaviour that have not been documented before.
A similar study has already been undertaken at Ingula during the autumn of 2016, to test the exact methodologies required in terms of camera height, angle and focal distance to be allowed to accommodate for optimal camera placement across varied wetland habitat structures. This study has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed scientific Journal of African Ornithology, Ostrich.
Above: Deployment of camera traps into Middelpunt Wetland. Photo: Carina Coetzer
4. Construct a research facility for detailed study of the White-winged Flufftail
A research facility for the captive breeding of White-winged Flufftails will be constructed with input from Mr Colin Wintle, the current world expert on the captive keeping of crakes, rails and flufftails. 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. The research facility will allow researchers to study the biology and behaviour of this enigmatic species, as well as attempting to record the call of the White-winged Flufftail. Authenticity of the existing recordings of the bird is in doubt.
The construction of the Flufftail Research Facility is estimated at R1.2 million. A large part (about R400 000) will be funded through current donors who have already indicated their contribution to the construction in costs and labour. The outstanding amount on the “barometer” has now been reduced to R550 000 given the cost saving and the additional funds raised.
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.
Left: White-winged Flufftail Photo: Warwick Tarboton
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.
February 2017: A remarkable R42 000 was raised towards the sustenance of the local Site Support group at Berga wetland, Ethiopia through a public viewing arranged at Middelpunt wetland as part of the Dullstroom Flufftail Festival that was held at Dullstroom. BirdLife South Africa and Middelpunt Wetland Trust developed a joint position statement regarding our views about public flushing events in wetland habitats.
Donate towards the expansion of research and conservation on the White-winged Flufftail and the wetlands which they inhabit. Anyone wishing to donate towards this important conservation work can either deposit funds directly to BirdLife South Africa (FNB, Acc No: 62067506281, Branch: 250655) using the reference WWF_YourInitials&Surname, or can use the online payment platform accessed via www.birdlife.org.za/support-us/donate where the White-winged Flufftail tab can be selected as the chosen cause.
Seen a Flufftail? Please report all sightings of flufftails (including White-winged Flufftail) to Dr Hanneline Smit-Robinson, Terrestrial Bird Conservation Programme Manager (Oppenheimer Fellow of Conservation) at firstname.lastname@example.org or 011 789 1122.
Any contribution would be of great scientific value.
All research is made possible through the generous support of The Ingula Partnership, Airports Company South Africa and Department of Environmental Affairs. Further support is received through several donors including Rockjumper Worldwide Birding Adventures, BirdLife International, Escarpment Bird Club and others.
Dr Hanneline Smit-Robinson, Malcolm Drummond, Dr Brett Gardner