The White-winged Flufftail is one of the world’s most threatened and rarest birds. Destruction and degradation of the species’ high-altitude wetland habitat have resulted in a situation where its survival in the wild is uncertain. There is a race against time to ensure that it does not become the first bird on mainland Africa to go extinct. BirdLife South Africa is working with partners across public and private sectors to safeguard what little remains of the White-winged Flufftail’s wetland habitat.
BirdLife South Africa’s White-winged Flufftail Project
The White-winged Flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi) is a small, elusive bird and is one of nine flufftail species in Africa. They are known to only 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 is considered to be on the brink of extinction. It is one of South Africa’s rarest bird species, with an estimated 50 mature individuals left in the country. Its preferred wetland habitat is severely threatened by habitat degradation and destruction.
BirdLife South Africa and Middelpunt Wetland Trust, with support from Rockjumper Birding Tours, are striving to research and conserve the White-winged Flufftail to ensure its long-term survival for generations to come. Find out more about the project below.
Flufftails (Sarothruridae) are a group birds consisting of nine species endemic to Africa. Flufftails are related to crakes and rails and are small, secretive, ground-living birds that typically reveal their presence by their ghostly hooting calls.
The White-winged Flufftail is only known to occur in the high-altitude wetlands of South Africa and Ethiopia. Ten years ago, the South African population was estimated at 235 non-breeding individuals occurring at ten sites. More recent estimates show that there is a mere 50 birds left in South Africa and less than 250 globally.
White-winged Flufftails are streaked, with brownish plumage, have a rusty head, chest and tail, a wingspan of about 16 cm, and weigh 30-35 grams. The diagnostic broad white secondary flight feathers are only visible in flight.
White-winged Flufftails have very specific breeding habitat needs. In Ethiopia, they favour seasonal flooded wetlands, stretches of grass and sedge vegetation standing about knee-height in ankle-deep water in summer. In South Africa, by contrast, the wetlands used by White-winged Flufftails are permanently or semi-permanently wet and located near the headwaters of rivers in the eastern Highveld. These wetlands are often dominated by the sedge Carex acutiformis, a broad-leafed plant that forms a closed canopy above damp ground or shallow water.
The presence or absence of the birds appears to be 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 in a field experiment. Much remains to be learnt about the bird’s habitat requirements. What is known about White-winged Flufftail habitat requirements is being used to identify potential wetland sites to survey where the bird is most likely to be found.
Wetlands are South Africa’s most threatened ecosystem according to the South African National Biodiversity Assessment in 2011. In South Africa, wetlands are being destroyed and degraded through activities such as mining, drainage, crop farming, afforestation, grazing, water abstraction, horticulture, peat fires, erosion, siltation, fences, and developments such as roads, dams and buildings.
Many of the historical sites of White-winged Flufftails can no longer be restored such as the wetland habitats around Durban that have been destroyed by intensive agriculture (especially sugarcane farming), industrialization and the proliferation of human settlements.
The marshes occupied by the breeding population in Ethiopia are intensively grazed by livestock and harvested by cutting marsh vegetation for fodder. Livestock numbers are increasing with human population growth and expansion. Grasses and sedges are also cut for the culturally important Ethiopian coffee ceremony
Our Recent Discoveries
First Breeding Record in South Africa
First Breeding Record for South Africa
White-winged Flufftails are only known to occur with any regularity in Ethiopia and South Africa, more than 4000 km apart. The bird is found in eastern parts of South Africa from November to March, whilst in Ethiopia it can be found from July to August. Prior to our recent discovery, the only known breeding site was Berga Wetland in Ethiopia.
BirdLife South Africa’s Robin Colyn and ecologist Alastair Campbell developed an innovative way to observe this cryptic and elusive species. Dubbed the BirdLife South Africa Rallid Survey Method, this method uses a cleverly designed camera trap system to record the secret life of White-winged Flufftails in dense wetland vegetation. In 2016/17, they recorded interesting wing-flapping behaviour during which both males and females displayed their white wing feathers. In 2017/18, the survey technique was further refined resulting in camera traps photographing recently hatched chicks and juveniles. This confirms that the White-winged Flufftail is not a “non-breeding visitor” to South Africa as was previously believed.
Subsequent breeding records were confirmed in January 2019, providing further support to the theory that the White-winged Flufftail is a regular breeder in South Africa. However, the survey also revealed that the bird occurs at low abundances and therefore, until further knowledge, our assumption holds that this species is extremely rare and it remains on the brink of extinction.”
First Confirmed Call Record
First confirmation of their call
One of the greatest ornithological mysteries has been solved! The White-winged Flufftail was first discovered in 1876 and described by Thomas Ayres and John Gurney the following year. Since its discovery over 140 years ago, numerous aspects of its ecology, behaviour and population status remain veiled in mystery. The gaps in our understanding are such that it was one of the only southern African bird species for which we did not have an undisputed recording of its call.
In February 2018, a call was identified by Robin Colyn using acoustic monitoring devices at a South African wetland that did not match any known calls. The unknown call was taken simultaneously with camera traps showing a male White-winged Flufftail exhibiting territorial behaviour. The call differed substantially from most flufftail species and occurred within a low frequency range, making it difficult to distinguish from other sounds in the landscape.
In August 2018, a team from BirdLife South Africa (Robin Colyn, Dr Melissa Whitecross and Caroline Howes) also recorded the soft staccato clicking of the White-winged Flufftail at breeding grounds in Ethiopia, thus confirming the species’ vocalisation at both extremities of its global range.
This breakthrough has been crucial in developing the way BirdLife South Africa studies White-winged Flufftails in the wild.
The White-winged Flufftail is a wetland specialist preferring intact, health sedge meadows. By conserving the White-winged Flufftail, threatened wetland habitat is protected for a diversity of species. In addition, the ecosystem services that wetlands provide to human society is also safeguarded for many generations to come. Thus, the White-winged Flufftail acts as a flagship or ambassador species for wetland and water conservation. The plight of the White-winged Flufftail is used to educate the public and school children about the inappropriate human activities that threaten our scare water supplies. This annual awareness event is called the Flufftail Festival and has reached hundreds of people since 2015.
For more information, please visit the dedicated Flufftail Festival webpage below
Middelpunt Wetland Trust
The White-winged Flufftail was discovered at 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 (chairperson)
- Malcolm Drummond
- Adam Riley
- Mark Anderson
- Dr Hanneline Smit-Robinson
Advisory members are:
- Fanie du Plessis (finances and accountant)
- Dr Kyle Lloyd (scientific advice and secretary)
Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds
The Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA) is an intergovernmental treaty dedicated to the conservation of migratory waterbirds and their habitats. South Africa has been a contracting party since 2002. AEWA lists the White-winged Flufftail as an intra-African migrant that requires the highest level of protection.
Attendees of the 3rd AEWA White-winged Flufftail International Working Group meeting, which took place at Dullstroom, South Africa in 2019.
Dr Hanneline Smit-Robinson
AEWA White-winged Flufftail International Working Group Coordinator
AEWA White-winged Flufftail International Working Group
The role of the AEWA White-winged Flufftail International Working Group is to coordinate and catalyse the implementation the International White-winged Flufftail Single Species Action Plan (ISSAP) commissioned in 2008. During the 2019 meeting held in Dullstroom, South Africa, a 3-year Implementation Plan (2020–2022) based on the ISSAP was developed. Dr Hanneline Smit-Robinson (BirdLife South Africa, Head of Conservation) is the coordinator of the International Working Group.
White-winged Flufftail National Working Group
The Department of Forestry, Fisheries, and the Environment (DFFE) initiated a White-winged Flufftail National Working Group in 2017. The National Working Group comprises representatives from DFFE, BirdLife South Africa, provincial conservation-governing bodies, and several other private and public stakeholders. Discussions at the annual National Working Group meetings are mainly focused around actions highlighted within the AEWA International Single Species Action Plan (ISSAP) as well as the most recent Implementation Plan of the ISSAP.
The AEWA International Single Species Action Plan (ISSAP) for White-winged Flufftail identified limited knowledge as one of the key obstacles to conserving the species. The ISSAP identified the following priority research areas:
1. Determine population structure
2. Establish the extent of the species’ range and distribution
3. Identify migration routes and stop-over sites
4. Determine the habitat requirements and preferences of the species
5. Describe the breeding biology and general ecology of the species
6. Predict what effect climate change will have on the habitat of the species
Despite the gradual accumulation of studies over the past decade, significant knowledge gaps still remain that limit governing bodies from making informed management decisions. The following BirdLife South Africa research projects address these knowledge gaps by using cutting-edge observational techniques that collect sufficient samples sizes to test biological hypotheses, whilst minimising disturbance to the species and its habitat.
The cryptic behaviour of the White-winged Flufftail makes it difficult to detect and study individuals. Researchers at BirdLife South Africa have developed a methodology to passively monitor White-winged Flufftail presence, activity and behaviour with much higher detection rates than traditional flushing methods. Dubbed “the BirdLife South Africa Rallid Survey Method”, the survey technique uses a combination of motion-detected camera traps and shade-cloth tunnels to channel birds towards the camera lens. Populations are monitored during austral summer months at two large wetland systems with confirmed White-winged Flufftail presence. Several environmental variables that likely influence White-winged Flufftail ecology are measured as well. Individual mark-recapture of individuals with resights provided by the camera trap images provide insight into the species’ population demography, home range, local movement patterns, habitat requirements, breeding biology and other individual-level research questions.
Historical records of White-winged Flufftail in South Africa indicate that the species was once widespread. However, inland wetlands have been degraded and destroyed over the last century, and it is not known where White-winged Flufftails still occur. The previous hypothesis that White-winged Flufftail bred in Ethiopia and overwintered in South Africa has also been disproven following the recent discovery of a breeding record in South Africa. If a holistic approach to habitat conservation is not adopted, unidentified and unprotected sites may become population sinks (poor habitat quality) that increase the mortality rate of the species. The call of the White-winged Flufftail has been recently described, which allows us to use bioacoustics to fill a number of knowledge gaps without the need to flush the bird or trample sensitive wetland vegetation. Habitat Suitability Modelling based on preliminary breeding habitat requirements of the White-winged Flufftail identify several locations that have a high likelihood of occurrence. These locations are ground-truthed to determine if the broad habitat requirements of the White-winged Flufftail are met. If the wetland is suitable, acoustic devices (i.e., audio recorders) are deployed to record the acoustic landscape (dubbed “the BirdLife South Africa Rapid Acoustic Survey Method”). Devices are deployed during the peak breeding season and hypothesised overwintering period in South Africa and abroad. Environmental variables that could explain White-winged Flufftail presence and ecosystem health are also collected at different spatial levels.
White-winged Flufftails sampled from South Africa and Ethiopia have low genetic diversity, supporting the hypothesis that subpopulations from the two countries are one migrating population. However, the study that investigated White-winged Flufftail genetic diversity only used three individuals from South Africa and ten individuals from Ethiopia, and did not consider the biogeography of the species (e.g., loss of genetic heterozygosity during historic population bottlenecks). In addition, White-winged Flufftails have low adaptive capability meaning that the rate at which genetic differences accumulate among subpopulations may be slow. Sampling from more individuals at various sites in South Africa, utilising fast evolving co-dominant markers such as microsatellites, and employing next-generation sequencing will assist to further elucidate within-species divergence and determine if subpopulations are distinct. Samples from captured White-winged Flufftail are used to assess the genetic fitness of each subpopulation, long-distance migration potential, and biogeography. Isotopic samples can also provide insight into possible migration pathways.
Preventing the extinction of White-winged Flufftails requires a community-level approach. This is because the White-winged Flufftail is a habitat specialist that requires specific environmental conditions to reproduce successfully. The species cannot persist if these habitat requirements are not managed correctly. Several animal species are essential to creating and maintaining wetland structure and functionality. These keystone species have a disproportionately large effect on their environment relative to their abundance, thus affecting many other species that share the same habitat. Keystone species can fulfil different ecological roles in their community, such as ecosystem engineers. Ecosystem engineers create, modify or maintain habitat structure and are often linked to higher species richness and diversity at the landscape level. Anecdotal field observations suggest that White-winged Flufftails use habitat features that result from the activities of other animal species. We use the data collected from passive monitoring equipment (i.e., camera traps and acoustic devices) to answer community-level research questions that inform best practice guidelines for wetland management.
What you can do to help
Anyone wishing to donate towards this important work can either deposit funds directly to BirdLife South Africa (FNB, Account no.: 62067506281, Branch: 250655) using the reference WWF_YourInitials&
Seen a flufftail? Please report all sightings of flufftails (including White-winged Flufftail) to Dr Kyle Lloyd, Rockjumper Fellow of White-winged Flufftail Conservation at:
Phone: +27(0)11 789 1122
A word of thanks to our sponsors
All research and conservation efforts are made possible through the generous support of Rockjumper Birding Tours through the Preventing Extinctions Programme at BirdLife International. Further support is received through several donors including The Ingula Partnership (Eskom, Middelpunt Wetland Trust and BirdLife South Africa), African Bird Club, Club300 Foundation, Waterbird Research Society, Dynecke Engineering, and Eurolux (through Chamberlains).
Colyn RB, 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.
Colyn RB, Campbell A, Smit-Robinson HA. 2019. 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 1: 1–16.
Colyn RB, Campbell A, Smit-Robinson HA. 2020. The use of a camera trap and acoustic survey design to ascertain the vocalisation and breeding status of the highly elusive White-winged Flufftail Sarothrura ayresi. Avian Conservation & Ecology 15.
Colyn RB, Howes-Whitecross MA, Howes C, Smit-Robinson HA. 2020. Restricted breeding habitat of the Critically Endangered White-winged Flufftail in Ethiopia and its conservation implications. Ostrich 91: 204–213.
Dalton DL, Vermaak E, Smit-Robinson HA, Kotzé A. 2016. Lack of diversity at innate immunity Toll-like receptors genes in the critically endangered White-winged Flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi). Scientific Reports 6: 1–8.
Dalton DL, Smit-Robinson HA, Vermaak E, Jarvis E, Kotzé A. 2018. 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.
Davies GBP, Smit-Robinson HA, Drummond IM, Gardner B, Rautenbach S, Van Stuyvenberg D, Nattrass C, Pretorius M, Pietersen DW, Symes CT. 2015. Review of recent records of the White-winged Flufftail Sarothrura ayresi (Aves, Sarothruridae) in South Africa, including details of a survey of high-altitude wetlands in 2013-2014. Durban Natural Science Museum Novitates 37: 62–75.
Du Plessis M, Dalton DL, Smit-Robinson HA, Kotzé A. 2017. Next generation sequencing yields the mitochondrial genome of the critically endangered Sarothrura ayresi (White-winged Flufftail). Mitochondrial DNA Part B 2: 236–237.
Howes-Whitecross MA, Howes C, Colyn RB, Smit-Robinson HA. 2020. Challenges in nest monitoring of White-winged Flufftails Sarothrura ayersi in Ethiopia. Ostrich 91: 260–263.
Marais AJ, Lloyd K, Smit-Robinson HA, Brown LR. 2021. A vegetation classification and description of White-winged Flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi) habitat at selected high-altitude peatlands in South Africa. Royal Society open science 8: 1–15.