Just a bit bigger than a finch. BirdLife South Africa and partners to start new captive breeding program on critically endangered bird

7 Apr

DSC_0060The critically endangered White-winged flufftail. Only found in Ethiopia and South Africa: Photo Miona Janeke

At this stage not many finch enthusiasts in the world know much about the critically endangered White-winged flufftail. The bird, which is just a bit bigger than most finches, weighs approximately 30 grams and it is estimated that there are less than 250 of these little wetland birds left in the world. Scientists, at this stage, are not yet sure if the species between Ethiopia and South Africa are genetically linked. And if the little bird migrates the massive 4,500 km distance between the two countries

Dr Hanneline Smit-Robinson, from BirdLife South Africa, recently shared with the RFCG their exciting new captive breeding plans to try and find out more about this fascinating little bird. Below is her story

Saving the world’s rarest flufftail

The White-winged Flufftail

Sarothrura ayresi is, to our knowledge, restricted to the high altitude wetlands of Ethiopia and eastern South-Africa.  It is severely threatened by habitat destruction, especially from commercial afforestation, mining activities, damming, draining and overgrazing and is believed to be undergoing a continuing decline.

BirdLife South Africa and Middelpunt Wetland Trust have initiated a number of projects during 2013 to aid in our current understanding of conservation action required;  sponsored by the BirdLife International Species Champion, Eskom.

Uplisted to Critically Endangered

The current estimate of the global population size of White-winged Flufftaill is less than 250 birds, with only about 50 birds left in South Africa, making this species the world’s rarest flufftail. During 2013, this species was uplisted by the IUCN to globally Critically Endangered, one level from extinction in the wild.

South African wetland surveys

To inform the protection of the flufftail’s preferred environment, we need to understand more about its habitat requirements. With this in mind, Greg Davies, ornithologist at the Ditsong Museum, Pretoria, undertook surveys of the high-altitude marshes in Mpumalanga, Free State and KwaZulu-Natal over the summer period of 2013–14 to identify suitable habitat for this rare species. Greg flushed a White-winged Flufftail at Middelpunt Wetland near Dullstroom, Mpumalanga, in December 2013.

Genetic and isotope analyses

To shed light on the migratory connection between South Africa and Ethiopia, genetic and isotopic analyses are currently under way. The DNA analyses are done in collaboration with Professor Antoinette Kotzé and her team at the National Zoological Gardens, Pretoria, and the isotopic studies with Professor Craig Symes at the University of the Witwatersrand.

We collected blood and feather samples from seven flufftails in Ethiopia in August 2013 in collaboration with our Ethiopian colleagues, the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society.

During the past season the fresh material from South African birds has increased from zero to three specimens. A male White-winged Flufftail was captured in a mistnet by Dirk van Stuyvenberg at Wakkerstroom in January. Another bird, an immature individual, was trapped by the research team at Middelpunt Wetland in February. In addition, material from a bird that collided with a powerline was obtained from Dr Barry Taylor. At long last with blood and feather samples from South African individuals, we anticipate that the White-winged Flufftail mystery could soon be unveiled.

 

The critically endangered White-winged flufftail is a very small wetland bird. Photo Miona Janeke

Captive breeding program planned for the critically endangered White-winged flufftail. Photo Miona Janeke

 New planned research facility at the National Zoological Gardens, Pretoria

The goal of this aspect of the work on White-winged Flufftails is to construct a research facility for captive flufftails in order to study their biology and behaviour. This facility will be used as a research laboratory to study species of flufftails and to raise awareness for the conservation of flufftails and wetlands. Initially the facility will be for Red-chested Flufftails, a closely related species. Later White-winged Flufftails will be sourced for the facility and a captive population will be established.  The facility will be open to visitors at the NZG and would have conservation, research and education value.

 Project Collaborators:             

  • National Zoological Gardens
  • BirdLife South Africa
  • Middelpunt Wetland Trust
  • University of Pretoria: Research on behaviour and other unknown aspects of the birds to be done in collaboration with Prof. Andrew McKechnie and his students.

Dr Hanneline Smit-Robinson.

Conservation Manager/Oppenheimer Fellow of Conservation

BirdLife South Africa

For more information on BirdLife South Africa visit http://www.birdlife.org.za

We sincerely thank Dr Hanneline Smit-Robinson for kindly sharing the above information with the RFCG. And we wish them lots of success with their conservation initiatives on this tiny little bird.

The Rare Finch Conservation Group is registered in South Africa as a non-profit organisation and is dependant on donors and sponsors to carry out its conservation work on finches in the wild. For more info visit http://www.rarefinch.org or write to the secretary at editor@avitalk.co.za

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LAB gathering was a great success

27 Mar
Delegates at the recent Learn About Birds convention held in the Drakensberg in South Africa. Photo Albert Froneman

Delegates at the recent Learn About Birds conference held in the Drakensberg in South Africa. Photo Albert Froneman

This was the second LAB ( Learn About Birds ) conference co-hosted by BirdLife South Africa and the FitzPatrick Institute of African ornithology. The 3 day conference, which will be held every 2 years, was a fantastic success. No less than 150 delegates attended the conference. Topics were wide and varied. The impact of wind turbines on birds, Conserving threatened bird species, Birds and climate change, The basics of bird photography, Ringing as a valuable tool to learn more about the biology of birds, Tracking birds with remote sensors in the 21st century etc. were all part and parcel of the more than 45 high quality presentations. Many of the presentations were given by Phd students from the various academic institutions in South Africa. Using two conference rooms delegates could literally pick and choose what they wished to attend. Early morning bird walks with highly experienced bird guides was also on the agenda

Albert Froneman, one of South Africa's foremost bird photographers, sharing his talents with interested delegates

Albert Froneman, one of South Africa’s foremost bird photographers, shared his talents with interested delegates.

For Eelco Meyjes , from the Rare Finch Conservation Group, it was an excellent opportunity to catch up with some of the latest developments in the world of birds and bird conservation work. For finch enthusiasts presentations were given on the African Quail-Finch, the sociable weavers in Namibia and the Cape Siskins in the Western Cape. The key thing is, as bird enthusiasts, we can all learn from one another. As an example the sophisticated, and very accurate tracking devices, that are currently being used on some of the larger bird species nowadays will, within the next 5 years, be available for many of the smaller birds. According to BirdLife International the devices may not weigh more than 3 to 5 per cent of the birds weight. And partly because of costs, as well as the need to check if the bird as well as the device can function properly when fitted, many of the initial tests on a particular species are often first done in a controlled and captive environment.

For more information on BirdLife South Africa visit http://www.birdlife.org.za and for more information on the Percy FitzPatrick institute visit http://www.fitzpatrick.uct.ac.za

The Rare Finch Conservation Group is registered in South Africa as a non-profit organisation and is dependant on donors and sponsors to carry out its conservation work on finches in the wild. For more info visit http://www.rarefinch.org or write to the secretary at editor@avitalk.co.za

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Finch photography reaches great new heights

27 Feb
A Southern masked-weaver building its nest. Photo Col Roberts

A Southern masked-weaver building its nest. Photo Col Roberts

A Thick billed weaver building its nest. Photo Col Roberts

A Thick-billed weaver building its nest. Photo Col Roberts

A long-tailed widow finch in full flight. Photo Col Roberts

A long-tailed widow finch in full flight. Photo Col Roberts

DD3C1718A pin-tailed whydah courting its hen . Photo Col Roberts

It’s not often that one sees great action shots of finches building their nests or some stunning photographs of finches in full flight. Col Roberts, who is a magistrate by profession and lives in Perth Australia, must rank as one of the worlds best photographers of finches.

The Master at Work. Col Roberts from Perth Australia on the recent RFCG EcoTour to Africa. Photo Eelco Meyjes

Using his Canon camera, with its 600mm lense plus a 1.4 converter, he is able to hand hold and take incredible high speed photographs of finches in action. Col Roberts was one of our guests on the recent RFCG EcoTour to South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. His passion for photography and his absolute enthusiasm for always trying to capture the perfect finch photograph was shared with all of us on tour. Each and everyone of us learnt a trick or two from him. He was always willing to share his knowledge and talent with every member on the tour. Col has very kindly donated a number of his top quality photographs to the Rare Finch Conservation Group, which will be used for promotional and fund raising purposes over the next couple of months.

Strong interest for doing a similar 23 day tour has already been indicated.( See the Kruger National Park, Botswana and the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe ) For those finch enthusiasts that may wish to participate on the next tour please contact either Russell Kingston at indruss@bigpond.com or Eelco Meyjes at editor@avitalk.co.za. All tour participants will be required to sign an indemnity form prior to departure. All profits are donated to the Rare Finch Conservation Group.

The Rare Finch Conservation Group is registered in South Africa as a non-profit organisation and is dependant on donors and sponsors to carry out its conservation work on finches in the wild. For more info visit http://www.rarefinch.org or write to the secretary at editor@avitalk.co.za

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Frank Mabasa is a top bird guide in the famous Kruger National Park

10 Feb
Frank Mabasa ( center ) pointing out a variety of fire finch species that could be seen at Crooks corner near the Pafuri picnic spot in the Kruger National Park. Photo Eelco Meyjes

Frank Mabasa ( center ) pointing out a variety of fire finch species that could be seen at Crooks corner near the Pafuri picnic spot in the Kruger National Park. Photo Eelco Meyjes

Frank Mabasa has already identified more than 258 bird species in one of the wildest and remote parts of the Kruger National Park. With more than 17 years of  working as a guard and looking after the Pafuri picnic spot , which is in the most northern part of the KNP, and often referred to as the absolute mecca for birders and twitchers he is always willing to help guests find that very special species.

Frank Mabasa receives a RFCG cap, coffee mug and T shirt from Eelco Meyjes in appreciation for his valuable services as a bird guide

Frank Mabasa receives a RFCG cap, coffee mug and T shirt from Eelco Meyjes in appreciation for his valuable services as a bird guide. Photo Kevin Solomon

Frank already in his early years showed a very keen interest in birds and today is able to mimic many of their calls. In 2006 BirdLife South Africa recognised his talents and he successfully qualified as a bird guide. Guests on the recent RFCG EcoTour to the Kruger National Park had the opportunity to meet him and enjoy the benefits of his vast experience.

Some of the finches that can be seen in this very northern part of the park are the indigo finches, a variety of the fire finches, violet ears, pin tailed whydahs , common waxbills, melbas and the very seldom seen lemon-breasted canary.

Strong interest for doing a similar 23 day tour has already been indicated.( See the Kruger National Park, Botswana and the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe ) For those finch enthusiasts that may wish to participate on the next tour please contact either Russell Kingston at indruss@bigpond.com or Eelco Meyjes at editor@avitalk.co.za. All tour participants will be required to sign an indemnity form prior to departure. All profits are donated to the Rare Finch Conservation Group.

The Rare Finch Conservation Group is registered in South Africa as a non-profit organisation and is dependant on donors and sponsors to carry out its conservation work on finches in the wild. For more info visit http://www.rarefinch.org or write to the secretary at editor@avitalk.co.za

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The end of a very sad week

31 Jan
Benson Bamutura

Benson Bamutura. Photo Eelco Meyjes

Benson Bamutura, who became a legend within the RFCG and was one of the very few people in the world to see the elusive Shelley’s crimsonwing finch, sadly passed away on Sunday 26 January. He was buried on Monday 27 January at his home in Bigadi, near Kibale national park in Uganda.

Without Benson the RFCG would not have been able to do its first field project in Uganda nor would it have been able to do its first EcoTour

Benson was a great man and he really knew his birds well. Everyone he met always liked him immediately

Benson played an important role in helping to make the world aware of the rarity of the Shelley’s crimsonwing finch.

May his soul rest in peace

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