Striped Flufftail – The Snow Leopard of Birds

Welcome to Issue 16 of the Flack’s photography newsletters. I hope that it finds you in good health and out birding!

Some of my bird photography moments have been head and shoulders above the rest! Photographing African Pitta in the Coutadas of Mozambique or Egyptian Plover on the banks of the Benoue River in Cameroon are two such experiences. This month I had another of these encounters when I came across one of the toughest birds to photograph in southern Africa; the Striped Flufftail. Like the Snow leopard, this bird is seldom seen and very few photographs of it exist. To mark the occasion I thought I would send out a brief newsletter to explain the “story behind the shot”.

I hope that you enjoy the tale that follows!

Striped Flufftail – The Snow Leopard of Birds

Ever since I first laid eyes on a Flufftail I have been absolutely enamored by them. There is just something about these intriguing birds that sets them apart from all others. It may be their fluffy tail and unique beauty or their round shape and small size; around 14cm, or it may be their shy, secretive behaviour and impenetrable habitats. Whatever it is, these unique birds have a special place in my heart. And I am not alone as Flufftails are some of the most sought after birds to see and photograph in Africa!

Featured Image: A Striped Flufftail moves quickly under a canopy of bracken at Mbona Nature Reserve, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. This was the 4th frame of only 6 photographs taken as the bird moved across my viewfinder. Within seconds it was once again out of sight and hidden by foliage.
Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 6400 | 1/1600s | f5 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash
Image Dimensions: 5374 x 3585 (10 MB)

Taking photographs of them, however, is like trying to climb Everest without any training; near impossible! And if you want to try and attempt it without the use of flash, things become even trickier and therein lies the challenge.

There are nine species; seven in sub-Saharan Africa and two in Madagascar. Five occur in southern Africa; Buff-spotted, Red-chested, Striped, White-winged and Streaky-breasted.

Before moving to the Natal Midlands I had only ever seen Red-chested and Buff-spotted. My images of them were as terrible as they are difficult to locate! After 11 years of bird photography you would think I would have done better! Fast forward 12 months from arrival in the Midlands and I have now successfully captured Red-chested Flufftail during our first summer at our new home. I thought I had died and gone to heaven when this spectacular, rail-like phenomenon crept out from cover to give me a few seconds of full frame magic. Red-chested and Buff-spotted are arguably the easier of the five southern African species to view and snap, but don’t be fooled, no flufftail is easy!

A male, Red-chested Flufftail photographed a few hundred metres from our front door near Balgowan, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.

Being the ultimate optimist I then started dreaming about the possibility of photographing a Striped Flufftail. They occur close to my home in the high altitude grasslands of the Karkloof. With very few images in circulation, I imagined a world where there were no boundaries, extroverted flufftails and mirrorless cameras that can perform in shadowy forests and dark understories. At least the last wish is now a reality!

I had already tried twice before to find and photograph Striped Flufftails at Ntsikeni Nature Reserve (about an hour from Creighton in KwaZulu Natal) without any success. I must thank Malcolm Gemmel and Dalu Ngcobo for their incredible patience and the knowledge that they shared with me during these fun trips. Failure often has a way of treading the path towards success and their input was invaluable!

A Black-winged Lapwing stands proudly on his calling post at Mbona Nature Reserve. The grassy hills attract some awesome bird species including Black-rumped Buttonquail and Broad-tailed Warbler. This image was taken a few hundred metres from where I photographed the Striped Flufftail, but on a previous trip.
A portrait of a Black-winged Lapwing with recently burnt grasslands providing an unusually dark background.

Thanks to Adam Riley; the founder of Rockjumper (Worldwide Birding Adventures), there was some tangible hope, however, that my dream could come true. On arrival in the Midlands, Adam and Felicity had kindly invited Eileen, Joshua and I to Mbona Nature Reserve to welcome us to this beautiful part of the world and hopefully show me some of its avian gems; including Striped Flufftail.

Although the weather was not in our favour, as it rained for most of the time we were there, I could tell that the Reserve was very special and hoped that I would be able to spend more time within its boundaries. Besides Striped Flufftail, Mbona is something of a Mecca for exciting bird species with Bronze-naped Pigeon, Cape Eagle Owl, Orange Ground Thrush, Buff-spotted Flufftail, Broad-tailed Warbler and Black-rumped Buttonquail just a few of the brilliant species on offer.

Broad-tailed Warblers could be heard calling from the grasslands surrounding the Striped Flufftail site. These can also be tricky birds to photograph and are plentiful at Mbona Nature Reserve.

Thanks to Adam as well as the Mbona Nature Reserve’s Board of Directors my heart’s desire to have more time in the Reserve came true when I was given permission to conduct a 6 month photographic study of their birds, starting on the 1st of October 2021. Little did I know that their kindness and the exciting opportunity it afforded me would lead to one of my all time, stand out birding experiences!

A Dark-capped Warbler calls from a hidden perch in close proximity to where we found the illusive Striped Flufftail at Mbona Nature Reserve, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.

Like a kid before Christmas I couldn’t wait to start exploring the feathered riches of Mbona and met Adam on the 2nd of October so he could show me around and identify some of the best spots for the various species. One thing is for sure, having local knowledge and expert advice when starting to photograph in a new area cannot be underestimated and I owe many of my photographs to those who have gone before me and shared their experiences.

First stop was a few potential Striped Flufftail sites. I was a little intimidated by the task ahead of me as the sites I had seen on my previous visit were all on steep banks with very thick vegetation. How on earth I was going to photograph a Flufftail in these environments was beyond me? Fortune would have to favour the brave!

Luckily Adam had found another location, which on first sight looked much more inviting from a photographic standpoint. It was situated on the drainage line between two hills. The topography was far less steep and the vegetation was bracken, which looked far less dense that the thick, grass embankments I was used to. There was, however, no immediate sign of any Flufftails. With the help of playback (which although it has its critics and should be used sparingly is one of the more if not only reliable ways to find these very tricky birds) we soon identified two pairs. The first responder was higher up than Adam had heard them previously and we had to climb an extra 100 metres up the hill to get closer to the source.

Adam Riley pictured at the site where I ended up taking the photographs of the Striped Flufftail. As you can see the slope is gentle and covered with bracken with small gaps between it. There were at least two pairs of Flufftails at this location.

My immediate thought was that this was the place to start my observation as the location of this specific bird was as optimal as I had ever seen for a Flufftail. The slope was gentle (with the possibility of eye level photographs), the bracken was sparse and the bird was close enough to the side of the bracken to give us decent views. Although we were not successful in seeing the bird on this first attempt I was excited to return with my portable hide and a cart load of patience.

Sun rise over Mbona Nature Reserve in the Karkloof. This is the location where I photographed the Striped Flufftail; a valley of bracken; small ferns, situated between two hills. In fact, you can see some of the old bracken stems that feature in the Striped Flufftail image/s at the bottom centre of this photograph. What a magical place to spend a morning!

With some generously provided information under my belt I had to wait two more sleeps before I could return. The weather forecast for Monday was overcast with a very low chance of rain. Not necessarily what one would want for bird photography, but perfect if you hope to see Flufftails (as they tend to be more active in this weather) and want some diffuse, mid-morning light.

I arrived at Mbona around 6am and made my way back to where we had been two days previously. My walk was fast and determined. My heart was racing and my mind was filled with possibilities. Would I get a glimpse of this mystical bird for the first time? Would I possibly get a record shot? How many times would I have to come back to get a clear image? What would I learn and observe?

At around 08h30 I was brimming with excitement. I had caught a glimpse of the bird three times and had even got a blurry, record shot! What a treat! Every time I see them I am always surprised at how tiny they are and how they scurry around like little rodents in the undergrowth. Such unusual, exceptional birds!

After 3 hours of waiting and watching, this was all I had to show for my efforts! And I was delighted! These rail-like birds are seldom seen, so any photograph is a reason to celebrate. This image was taken in the exact same spot as the featured image, except in the latter the bird was in front of the newly forming fern (which you can see in this photograph) as opposed to behind it.

Although recent experiences have shown me that I am far from an expert when it comes to field observation, the last two and a half hours sitting in my portable hide and staring at bracken had revealed a few possible things about the bird and it’s behaviour:

  1. They are slow to respond. After hearing its call, it takes 5 to 20 minutes for the bird to come and investigate. Best to be patient and just wait for the bird to move slowly towards where you hope for it to appear. At one point I had the bird relaxed and foraging under the bracken less than 6 metres from where I was sitting (albeit obscured by fern stems);
  2. Obvious, but worth noting, these little guys are a bit like the Mogwais from the Gremlins. They don’t like bright light! Interestingly, it does not seem to be the thickness of the ground cover that is of key importance to them but rather that they have cover over their heads. Makes sense if you are mouse-like and have harriers and other birds of prey flying above you! The birds would not break cover but would show briefly in open areas of the understory where cover existed. (They have been known to run across open patches but this did not happen with me.);
  3. They move very quickly and the visuals are fleeting. The bird was constantly on the move. At times he was walking fairly slowly but was never still, unless he was calling. Unfortunately when he was calling he seemed to favour the thick stuff; and
  4. They are habitual in their movements. I have noticed this same behaviour with Buff-spotted Flufftails. They seem to have a routine and move in a circular motion from one specific location (or calling post) to the next. This allows you to predict where they may arrive and get a sense for the timing of things.

Based on the above, I made a few adjustments to my photography efforts. Firstly, I tried to focus on two key points where there were gaps in the understory and where I felt the bird may appear. The routine nature of their movements meant I could guess where to focus my attention.

If you were a Striped Flufftail this is what you will see in your bracken thicket, and if you are a photographer trying to capture one this is what you will be staring into for many hours. This perspective gives you a good sense of the photographic challenge these birds present. There are very few open areas between the fern stems, which make clear shots of the bird very difficult!

Secondly, there was quite a lot of dead bracken lying on the surface. I lifted it up so that it cleared the clutter from the ground, while still giving a lot of head cover. I think this was a turning point in terms of my efforts, as no more than 20 minutes later and I obtained what I thought was a “once in a lifetime” sighting of the bird. It appeared in an open patch without any obstructions. Unfortunately I only had a few seconds to react and by the time I had moved my camera in place it had disappeared out of view.

It was this amazing sighting that encouraged me to keep at it for another 20 odd minutes. I heard the bird calling to the left of me and knew, based on his previous behaviour, that he would likely make his way down and around the front of me. There was also a small chance that he may appear in the exact same open area as previously. After approximately 15 minutes of waiting, however, I was tired and thirsty and was about to give up. Surely I had used up my “once in a lifetime” opportunity?!

To end the session, I thought I would take a few shots of the exact spot where the bird had shown so well. This would give me an idea of what the photograph would look like from a background and composition perspective. I was focusing on a tiny bracken shoot, when there was a sudden movement in my viewfinder. The object moving was orange, black and white! Oh my sack of potatoes! The Flufftail had returned to the exact same spot I had seen it 20 minutes earlier. The next few nanoseconds our best described through my camera and the resultant images. I was able to get off 6 frames. The first was blurred, the second was not (and can be seen below) and the fourth was my favourite!

After almost 3.5 hours of waiting this was the first sharp image of the Flufftail (#2 of 6 frames) taken. I had to double check the viewfinder a few times to ensure that what I thought had just happened actually took place!

It was around 09h30. Approximately 3 hours and 30 minutes after my arrival and I had achieved one of my bird photography dreams. I had not only seen the Snow Leopard but I had now got an image of it to cherish the moment for many years to come.

Too excited to continue birding, I phoned Adam to share the news and thank him for his kindness and efforts. And I drove home with a feeling of euphoria and a heart full of gratitude for our amazing country and the fantastic moments it makes possible. What an absolute blessing!

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Yours in bird photography,