Archived 2012-2013 topics: White-winged Flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi): uplist to Critically Endangered?

White-winged Flufftail Sarothrura ayresi occurs in Ethiopia (currently three sites in the central highlands, the only known breeding area for this species) (Taylor and van Perlo 1998, Taylor 1998, 1999), Zimbabwe (one record in 1988 [Hustler and Irwin 1995], two records in the 1970s [Taylor and van Perlo 1998], and a possible breeding record in the 1950s [Taylor and van Perlo 1998, Taylor 1999]), and South Africa (ten sites in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga [De Smidt 2003], but still present at between two and eight of these [Evans 2013]). It is currently listed as Endangered under criterion B1ab(i,ii,iii,iv,v) because it has a very small range (Extent of Occurrence [breeding/resident] estimated to be 350 km2), with breeding proven at only three locations, which is believed to be undergoing a continuing decline in extent, area, and habitat quality, owing to the high rate of loss and degradation of its preferred habitat, seasonal marshland (Collar and Stuart 1985). The population of this species was previously estimated to be 700 mature individuals, with 235 birds in South Africa, and a further 210-235 pairs in Ethiopia (A. Shimelis in litt. 1998). However, recent information suggests that the global population may number fewer than 250 mature individuals. Its Area of Occupancy has been estimated at 3.92km2 in South Africa (72 ha suitable habitat at Middlepunt and 320 ha at Wakkerstroom, the only two recently reliable sites) and 5.5 km2 at the three Ethiopian breeding sites (based on 150 ha suitable habitat at Weserbi, 100 ha Bilacha, and 300 ha Berga) (H. Smit-Robinson in litt. 2013), and due to low confidence in past estimates and continued threats to the species and its habitat over the past 10 years, the regional population in South Africa is thought to be fewer than 50 birds (H. Smit-Robinson in litt. 2013, Evans 2013). Should evidence suggest that the population in Ethiopia now also numbers 50 or fewer mature individuals, this species would qualify as Critically Endangered under criterion C2a(i), on the basis that the global population is <250 mature individuals, it is in continuing decline and all subpopulations are 50 individuals or fewer, assuming Ethiopian and South African subpopulations are separate. Nevertheless, it is still unknown if a single population migrates between Ethiopia and South Africa, or if each country hosts its own subpopulation (Taylor and van Perlo 1998, Barnes 2000). Lack of subspeciation suggests that migration may occur, but records from intervening regions are rare and occurrence dates overlap (del Hoyo et al. 1996). Research into the migration patterns and population connectivity of this species in South Africa and Ethiopia is planned for later in the year (H. Smit-Robinson in litt. 2013). If there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the species migrates between the two regions and thus, at least 90% mature individuals are in one subpopulation, this species could qualify as Critically Endangered under criterion C2a(ii) of the IUCN Red List if undergoing a continuing decline and fewer than 250 mature individuals in total. Very little information is currently available on the population size and trends for this species. However, it has been suggested that the population will undergo a significant reduction, mainly due to habitat destruction from overgrazing in Ethiopia and mining activities in South Africa (H. Smit-Robinson in litt. 2013, Evans 2013). Should an ongoing and future population reduction of at least 80% in three generations (11 years in this species) be suspected based on a decline in area of occupancy, extent of occurrence, and/or quality of habitat, it would qualify as Critically Endangered under criterion A3c+4c. Information is requested on the population size, trends and distribution of this species. Comments on the likeliness of connectivity and migration between Ethiopia and South Africa are particularly welcome. References: Barnes, K. N. (2000) The Eskom Red Data Book of birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. BirdLife South Africa, Johannesburg. Collar, N. J. and Stuart, S. N. (1985) Threatened birds of Africa and related islands: the ICBP/IUCN Red Data Book. International Council for Bird Preservation, and International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources: Cambridge, U.K. De Smidt, A. (2003) Ethiopian White-winged Flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi) action plan. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1996) Handbook of the birds of the world, Vol 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Barcelona, Spain: Lynx Edicions. Evans, S.W. 2013. White-winged Flufftail. In: The Eskom Red Data Book of Birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Taylor, M.R. (ed). BirdLife South Africa, Johannesburg (In press). Hustler, K. and Irwin, M. P. S. (1995) Fifth Report of the OAZ Rarities Committee. Honeyguide 41: 103-106. Taylor, P. B. (1998) The ecology and conservation of the White-winged Flufftail, and the sustainable utilisation of Ethiopian high-altitude palustrine wetland habitats: report on fieldwork in Ethiopia from 27 November to 12 December 1998. Taylor, B. and van Perlo, B. (1998) Rails: a guide to the rails, crakes, gallinules and coots of the world. Pica Press: Robertsbridge, UK. Taylor, B. (1999) First White-winged Flufftail nest found. World Birdwatch 21(4): 3.

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13 Responses to Archived 2012-2013 topics: White-winged Flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi): uplist to Critically Endangered?

  1. Craig Symes says:

    I was recently part of the team that visited Ethiopia (4-10 August) in search of this species. While I am unable to comment on the quantitative assessment of population numbers I am in agreement that it is a species we should currently be seriously concerned about. We know very little about the bird and some sites, given that they are based on (dubious) records of vocalisations, are speculative. The species is a poor flyer and I find it difficult to accept that it migrates to South Africa from Ethiopia. I find it more plausible that it moves to sites as unyet discovered, maybe a south-western migration into southern Sudan? It is a reculsive bird and I suggest difficult to flush, although this is how birds are captured in Ethiopia. There is also no reason to think that the conservation status of the bird will get better in Ethiopia, unless great effort is made in conserving the known (and suspected) sites where it occurs. Human modification and impacts on its habitat in Ethiopia are its greatest threat.

  2. Johan van Rensburg says:

    I support whatever can be done to prolong the existence of all animal species on earth. We are always waiting far too long before intervening, with only a handful of individuals trying to stem the flood of habitat degradation, ignorance and greed… then intervention is in the form of a list update!

    If that will help the flufftail, go for it!


    On behalf of the above Association, WNHA, we fully support the relisting of the White- winged Flufftail, uplist to critically endangered .
    Chairman WNHA

  4. James McFarlane says:

    Yes, please — we should not let this beautiful and important bird go the way of the Passenger Pigeon for the lack of a bit of effort and attention.

  5. Rina Pretorius says:

    I was part of a team in the beginning of the year, searching for with White-winged Flufftail in Wakkerstroom. We spend 2 days searching the wetlands for the wwf, without luck.

    I fully support the relisting of the White-winged Flufftail, uplist to critically endangered.

    Rina Pretorius

  6. Dr Otto Nel says:

    Habitat must be protected and mining and grazing must be curtailed and stopped and White -Winged Flufftail up list to critically endangered

  7. Joe Taylor says:

    The following comments were received from Colin Gerrans on 16 August 2013:

    I fully support any effort that is made to preserve the White-winged Flufftail.

    I have been birding for more than 30 years and have never had the sighting of even a single bird.

  8. Joe Taylor says:

    The following comments were received from Yilma D. Abebe on 16 August 2013:

    I have always considered this bird as critically endangered as a result of a) few numbers encountered from year to year b) only three sites known in Ethiopia and c) very few breeding records observed. A number of attempts have been made to search this bird at similar sites without any positive results. There must be thousands of small sites (marshes) in the Ethiopian highlands with similar affinities to the one in Berga wetlands. There are simply unanswered questions about its habitat and breeding requirements that science hasn’t solved. I believe we are only looking at things like altitude or season when looking for these birds. I guess other finer details including water levels, grass species composition, range conditions, habitat-climate relationships, land use changes and micro-climate may need more attention. Amongst the sites, the one at Bilacha is perhaps the least important at the moment. For one thing it is highly overgrazed and successive attempts to spot this species have failed. I am not all that sure about Bilacha because the most recent find was one bird in 2010 (Geremew G/Sellassie, pers comm). That leaves us with only Berga and Weserbi. Weserbi is an older site relative to Berga and may only have 1 to 2 pairs (and even that in good seasons). This bird, while definitely observable on Berga is still limited by a habitat that is not more than 300 ha. Even at Berga, not more than 12 individuals have been spotted in a season. One difficulty is that this rare bird can only be reliably surveyed in the breeding season. Visits to its site are deemed a disturbance to its nesting and thus proper (full) surveys have been avoided in the past. Reports seem to indicate that this bird has bred at the three known sites in Ethiopia. Proof of breeding (nests and chicks) is only known from Berga. This would automatically place it in critically endangered category. Sad to say, this Flufftail species deserves to be uplisted to a CR category until a time when we can find more birds in suitable sites.

  9. Joe Taylor says:

    The following comments were received from Geremew Gebreselassie on 16 August 2013:

    Comment on Up Listing of the White-winged Flufftail to Critically Endangered.

    The conservation and the trend of the population of the White-winged Flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi) has been of great concern to conservationists. Past estimates of the species in Ethiopia and South Africa was in the region of 700 mature individuals.

    Since 2007, I have been involved in the monitoring and conservation of the White-winged Flufftail in Berga, Bilacha and Woserbi. Regarding breeding, Berga is the only known breeding site. As to Bilacha and Woserbi, no sign of breeding was observed. From our monitoring over the years, the number of birds which we flushed each year in Berga since 2007 were four individuals on the average. The number of birds sighted in Bilacha and Woserbi is rather frustrating. It was only once that the White-winged Flufftails were sighted in Bilacha and Woserbi, since 2007. The two sites, Bilacha and Woserbi are highly disturbed from overgrazing, and one should not be surprised if Berga could soon be the only safe refuge for the White-winged Flufftail in Ethiopia. On the other hand, although our monitoring was often done to avoid undue disturbance, the decline in the population of W-winged Flufftails can be evidenced from two days of intensive search in Berga wetland in early August 2013 with the sighting of only twelve individuals.

    Although there are many wetlands similar to Berga in the Ethiopian highlands, in terms of altitude and vegetation, open grazing from too many livestock has rendered almost all of them unsuitable for the breeding of the white winged Flufftail. There were no evidences of Flufftails from monitoring in the wetlands in the vicinity of Berga and Woserbi.

    Hence, from the monitoring and the observations we have been undertaking, the population of the White-winged Flufftail is surely far short of the previous estimate. It is sad; but from the facts on the ground, the White-winged Flufftail must be up listed to Critically Endangered status.

  10. Mihret Ewnetu, Senior Wildlife Expert, Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority says:

    The up listing of the White-winged Fluff-tail ( Sarothrura ayresii)from an endangered to the Critically Endangered status is a non-refutable matter on the current breeding habitat situation of the bird in Ethiopia underlying the following facts:-
    1. In the past few years the breeding habitats of this bird has been shrinking very much from the previously known three sites of Berga, Weserbi and Bilacha to only one site namely the Berga Marsh and Flood Plain because of the ever-increasing anthropogenic influences on the remaining two sites. Even the existing situation of Berga wetland as a long lasting strong-hold of the White-Winged Fluff-tail (Sarothrura ayresii) is under question mainly due to the factors of habitat degradation and destruction keep on unchecked despite the fact that every effort has been made to improve the conservation status of the area.
    2. More supportive evidences on the worst situation of the habitat conditions of this bird in Ethiopia are in addition to the existing over grazing, trampling and grass cutting threats at Berga breeding site local people are encroaching further down to the wetland and practice subsistence agriculture and divide small plots of land on private basis for grazing. This undoubtedly has reduced the habitat of the White-winged Fluff-tail from the previously known 400 hectares of land to only 200 hectares.
    3. Bilacha wetland has already been converted into agriculture, settlement and grazing land. Weserbi wetland which was supposed to have 10 hectares of land as a suitable breeding habitat for the bird is now totally nil and a lot of houses are flourishing close to the remaining small patch of wet grassland.
    4. The suggestions that the non-breeding ground of the bird could be in the south west Ethiopia was unjustified as I my self as a team member of the preliminary assessment of the bird in Kaffa area in April this year have found no indication of the presence of the bird after an intensive survey of seven days in seven major wetlands which indicates the bird is highly localized in the country.
    All the above facts are indications of the bird’s precarious situations and the necessity to up listing of the bird to a critically endangered status in addition to its being a
    monotypic and a very small and fragmented population all over the world which is remaining a few hundred more precisely less than 200 individuals. All the comments raised above have arisen from my travels to the area and the habitat and bird observations over the last four years.

  11. Stan Madden says:

    I have seen this very special bird on only two occasions over a period of 70 years of birding. The first was a dead specimen killed at Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve in 1976, and the second a very pleasurable experience with several other birders was at Middlepunt in 2004. It is very sad that from all the recent studies this bird has become so critically endangered and therefor its status must now be registered as such.

  12. Tania Anderson says:

    Based on the existing information as provided above and results of the recent survey in Ethiopia, as well as the likelihood that the impacts on its habitat are not going to be halted over the short term, I fully support the uplisting of the White-winged Flufftail to Critically Endangered.

  13. I wholeheartedly support the proposal to have the White-winged Flufftail upgraded to ‘critically endangered’. I have visited all the sites – there are very few of them – in South Africa and Ethiopia where the bird has been recorded in recent times and can only say the bird is hanging in by a thread, given its tiny, fragmented range and small numbers. Compounding this is the lack of basic knowledge about its life history, movements and ecological requirements. It is a deserving candidate for uplisting.

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