White-winged Flufftails; Ntsikeni Nature Reserve near Franklin in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa

Conserving Africa’s Rarest Bird

Welcome to issue 33 of The Flack’s Photography newsletters. I hope it finds you happy and healthy!

At the end of last year I was invited to be the photographer on a very exciting conservation project headed up by Dr Kyle Lloyd from BirdLife South Africa and the Middelpunt Wetland Trust. The following newsletter gives a behind the scenes look at his fascinating work as well as the good that can come from it.

I hope you enjoy the story that follows and look forward to your feedback.

Conserving one of Africa’s rarest birds; the White-winged Flufftail

In the words of Dr Lloyd, “the White-winged Flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi) is listed as a globally Critically Endangered bird endemic to Africa. It is considered one of the rarest and most threatened waterbirds on the continent. The total global population was estimated at no more than 250 breeding adults in 2013. Ethiopia and, more recently, South Africa are the only two countries where White-winged Flufftail are known to breed.”

This context gives us all we need to know in terms of justifying the importance and urgency behind Kyle’s conservation work and was more than enough reason to get me excited to support his efforts. The fact that the work was being carried out at one of South Africa’s hidden gems; Ntsikeni Nature Reserve near Franklin in KwaZulu Natal, (about 3 hours from my home) was the cherry on top of the cake for me.

Indeed, Ntsikeni Nature Reserve was first introduced to me by Malcolm Gemmel around 8 years ago. I still vividly remember my first visit there! As we made our way to the lodge we found a Secretarybird on its nest, common quails lined the roads on mass and at one point we had Yellow-breasted Pipits displaying at eye level in front of us. I knew Malcolm had taken me somewhere very special!

In terms of the conservation work at hand, Kyle’s main research objectives are as follows:

1. To reduce uncertainty about White-winged Flufftail biology to better inform conservation efforts;

2. To manage, rehabilitate, protect, steward and safeguard, through policy and advocacy, White-winged Flufftail wetland habitat across private and public sectors; and

3. To raise awareness about water issues across socio-economic classes by using the White-winged Flufftail as an ambassador of wetland conservation.

My involvement, however, was simple. Kyle had asked me to join him in the hope that we could get images of the bird in question and use this to drive needed awareness for the work being done as well as encourage “conservation-minded” ecotourism for the benefit of the local community.

A big part of Kyle’s heart is that the work he, BirdLife South Africa and the Middelpunt Wetland Trust does will benefit the local community that surrounds Ntsikeni. There are many ways he sees this can happen, but he is clear on the importance of linking conservation efforts to the benefits being provided if we have any chance of conserving this stronghold for the species.

Indeed, if you have ever visited Ntsikeni over the last few years you would have noticed some serious causes for concern. Neighbouring cattle use the reserve as their feeding station, annual, unplanned fires ravage the wetland (which could be the end of suitable flufftail habitat as they are sensitive to change_ and signs of poaching have been evident. Without a community development plan running side by side the conservation work being conducted, BirdLife South Africa, the Middelpunt Wetland Trust and Kyle may well be fighting a losing battle. Fortunately, their holistic approach is looking to provide answers to these pressing issues while at the same time supporting the nearby villages. The hope is that this will align their wellbeing with that of the Flufftails and in so doing create sustainable change.

Some of the work being done includes helping herders with free veterinary services and establishing a market for their organic meat.

What I learnt in the field

I am always curious to learn new things and being out in the field doing research on White-winged Flufftails was an incredible opportunity to do just that. I felt like a sponge being exposed to water and took away a number of interesting insights.

Research is hard work: Firstly, research like this is extremely hard work. I was seriously impressed with both Kyle’s and Dalu’s dedication and commitment to the task at hand. I assisted on the first morning to build the necessary tunnels and then put the first few in place, but as the sun started to make its presence felt in earnest, I left them to carry on. We started soon after the sun rose and they were back late that evening. Each green tunnel had to be meticulously placed a specific distance from the previous one and each time one was laid to rest there was a stack of questions that had to be answered and documented. For example, how deep was the water at the specific location and what vegetation made up the specific quadrant it lay in.

Given that there were 17 tunnels and then further acoustic monitoring devices that needed to be carefully installed, this took the better part of 3 days (with weather forcing a few breaks in between).

The tunnels are used to direct the Flufftails to walk in a specific direction so that they can be photographed by the remote cameras attached to each tunnel.

“The presence or absence of the birds at the camera trap monitoring stations will be correlated with the prevailing microhabitat conditions to determine its fine-scale habitat requirements. This will help us to better understand the ecological drivers needed to create or maintain the conditions needed for White-winged Flufftail to forage and breed. We will apply this information to adapting and tailoring wetland management practices for the benefit of the species. The cameras also give us insight into behaviour, particularly breeding, of which we know almost nothing about.” (Dr Kyle Lloyd)

Alongside a few of the tunnels, Kyle and Dalu also mounted acoustic devices to record the sounds from the area.

“Acoustic patterns will also help us to understand when the bird is most active and attempting to breed both temporally during the course of the wet season and spatially within the system. (Dr Kyle Lloyd)

White-winged Flufftail habitat: Secondly, White-winged Flufftails favourite environment is intact, dense sedge habitat. The word “intact” being the operative one as the overgrazing of cattle and annual, dry winter veld fires raises real concern around how long they will feel Ntsikeni Nature Reserve is suitable for them. The birds feed on insects and kycera (sedge and grass) seeds, which are abundant in the wetlands.

We are going to have to learn a lot more about them: Given the sensitivity of the species and the reluctance to disturb them in anyway, it soon became apparent that it may take a lot longer before we can achieve images of them that can drive further awareness and enable others to do the same. Indeed, if we are going to provide a way for the public to witness them consistently, we will need to learn more about their movements, the timing of their arrival and their behaviour. Fortunately, Kyle’s project will do just this and there is thus, hope that at some point plans will be made to allow the public to view these birds in an ethical and controlled manner. For now, we will just have to enjoy Kyle’s remote camera footage and some distant flight shots!

Incredible birdlife & passing on our knowledge

Despite the challenges of seeing White-winged Flufftail, Ntsikeni Nature Reserve should still be a location that every serious birder or bird photographer should visit. Indeed, four things have stayed constant on each of the trips I have done to Ntsikeni; the wonder of the birdlife, the spectacular nature of the scenery, the drama of the storms that roll in and the opportunity for some once in a lifetime moments and sightings.

Ntiskeni is also a relatively small reserve and hence, you can easily experience all the habitats and birds in a 3 to 4 day stay.

Things to consider while there (with ideally Dalu as your guide):

1. Walk around the outskirts of the wetland
If flufftails and crakes are not enough, you can also encounter an array of other wetland species including a variety of ducks, snipes and crakes as well as the outside chance of an Eurasian bittern.

2. Drive or walk the access road and search the neighbouring grasslands
Besides having four Flufftail species the reserve also boasts all three of our crane species; Wattled, Grey-crowned and Blue, who come to the area to breed. I bumped into two of the three species on our 4 day trip and was fortunate to find a pair of Wattled Cranes with a juvenile in their midst.

The grassland plains also hold plenty of Yellow-breasted Pipit, Common Quail, Denim’s Bustards, Secretarybirds, Marsh Harriers and the occasional Black Harrier.

3. Hike up to the top of Ntsikeni Mountain.
The mountain slopes hold Barrat’s Warbler, plenty of canaries and sunbirds and the opportunity to witness hunting sparrowhawks (including Rufous-breasted).

To top it off, if you climb to the top of Ntsikeni you can find at least two pairs of Drakensberg rockjumpers, Eastern Long-billed Lark, Sentinel Rock Thrushes and much more.

I hope this has given you enough reason to visit the reserve! I also highly recommend you use the services of Dalu. He is a very knowledgeable guide, an extremely kind and gracious man and someone who always tries his best to meet the needs of others.

On my last trip I also spent a couple of hours with Dalu sharing with him the essentials behind achieving good bird photographs in the field (taken from my mentorship programme). Hence, for all the aspiring bird photographers out there, Dalu now has a solid foundation in terms of what you are looking for! Please take time to further his knowledge and help him become an even better bird photography guide.


Keynote talk in Australia

I recently returned from an “art in bird photography” conference in Australia. The conference hosted over 200 passionate photographers from all over Australia.

Thanks so much to Birdlife Photography Australia for inviting me and for making me feel so incredibly welcome. It was such a privilege to be the keynote speaker and to share the stage with such wonderful and talented fellow photographers. The camaraderie at the conference was something that was very special to witness. I have definitely made a number of new friends and am looking forward to seeing how our paths will cross as our journeys continue.

And yes, the birds in Australia are very colourful and very noisy!!! My favourite were the magpies who sounded like a cross between an old internet connection and a soothing lullaby. I unfortunately didn’t get much time for photography but the fun, laughter and fellowship more than made up for that!

Next mentorship programme

My next intake for my mentorship programme is September/October, as July has just been filled. Please get in touch for a virtual coffee if you are interested to learn more. I have a couple of places left.


Next Creative Workshops

We still have space available for my workshop at Tenahead Lodge & Spa, from 23rd to 29th October 2024.


Yours in bird photography,