09 December 2021

Flufftail's - Myth or Legend?

29 September 2021 - Pretoria

What comes to mind if you think of Flufftails? Mythical, impossible, elusive, swamps/marshes, mosquitoes and seldom seen - all true! Most of us have probably been enticed to look for them after hearing their call and few of us have been lucky enough to perhaps get a fleeting and frustrating glimpse as they disappear into the undergrowth.

Flufftail's are small birds related to Rail's and Finfoot's and are so named from their short tail which has degraded fluffy feathers. These mouse-like birds are highly secretive, seldom still and are seldom observed as they stick to dense habitat. 

We have five species in South Africa. The Buff-spotted generally inhabits dense forest whilst the remaining species are found in dense grassland, bracken and marshes. Some are found in very small patches of suitable habitat. Although a few species are considered common, many birders have never seen a Flufftail. They are an elusive species and generally remain hidden at all times, so if you glimpse one - it is considered a chance encounter.

The Red-chested Flufftail maintains a permanent pair bond, are permanently territorial and entirely sedentary. This species is quite widely distributed in dense vegetation, ranging from wet grasslands and sedge's to permanent shallow and flooded wetlands.

So, when my friend Niel Cillie told me about a spot where he had good views of a pair of Red-chested, I jumped at the chance to join him at a site not too far from where I live. We met just after 6am and drove a short distance to the marshy wetland. When we got out the car, Niel asked me if I liked my shoes - I did, so it was shoes off and barefeet to the spot, in the mud and on the edge of the wetland.

We setup our camera's and then sat quietly and waited, hardly breathing (at least for me) in excitement. I fell into the category of only ever seeing a glimpse of both Red-chested and Buff-spotted, so the opportunity to see one up close was pretty exciting.

After about 30-minutes, we saw some movement on the edge of the marsh - the female Red-chested - this was the first fleeting view

Female Red-chested Flufftail (Sarothrura rufa)

As quickly as we saw it, just as quick it disappeared. But then it popped up again almost directly in front of us feeding on the edges, giving really good views then sprinting across any gaps to continue feeding - what an absolute treat and I make no apologies for the image dump!


Female Red-chested Flufftail (Sarothrura rufa)

Of course, we now wanted to see the male, who was way more elusive than the female. Ahead of us, he popped out briefly in a small gap and then disappeared - Ah, so close

Male Red-chested Flufftail (Sarothrura rufa)

We later realised that both the female and male were walking a pattern in their territory and with patience they would reveal themselves to us. The male remained more in cover than the female, but finally showed himself just within the minimum focusing distance of my big glass - this was an OO moment or for those who don't know an Ornithological Orgasm moment

Male Red-chested Flufftail (Sarothrura rufa)

Thanks again to Niel, this was an unforgettable birding memory!

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