The furtive flufftail
Red-chested Flufftail – Sarothura rufa (Afrikaans: Rooibors-vleikuiken)
The Redchested Flufftail is not uncommon where there are suitable marshy areas with reeds and grasses affording thick cover, but it is an extremely secretive little bird that is more often heard than seen.
Red-chested Flufftails belong to the family Rallidae – rails, crakes and moorhens. They share their marshy habitat with the African Rail, Black Crake, Baillon’s Crake, and the African Snipe (the Buff-spotted Flufftail inhabits forests and shrubs along forest edges). Distribution is from north of Cape Town along the southwestern Cape coastal region, along the south and east coast to Durban, where their area also extends inland and then north to Zimbabwe and beyond.
Red-chested Flufftails hardly ever come into the open. They have a skulking manner – head and tail down. They climb up to half a metre in the reeds, then can sit for an hour or more, well camouflaged, sunning themselves. Because of their skulking habits, it is no disgrace even for experienced birders to never have seen a flufftail in the wild. One may be lucky enough to flush one out by walking in the reeds – it will fly a short distance, then with folded wings it will drop back into the reeds. It is almost impossible to flush it a second time.
Their Robin-sized bodies (15–17 cm long) are flattened from side to side, to make it easy for moving in thick reed and grass cover. Some ornithologists believe the expression “thin as a rail” is taken from this family of birds, but Merriman-Webster Dictionary states that, although this sounds plausible, the actual reference is to a straight piece of timber or metal, such as those found in a railing between posts.
Flufftails have long legs and very long toes, for wading in muddy water and running on lily leaves. The male has a chestnut-coloured head and chest, black lower down with white spots. The female is black all over with white spots. The wings are white on the undersurface.
Almost immediately after hatching, the chicks leave the nest, never to return. They are able to fend for themselves. Their food consists of seeds, insects (mainly ants), and snails.
The only way to get a really good look at this bird is to have a hide in the reeds, then build a little island about half a metre square, with mud and moss on top, then lace it with termites, especially young termites (which can easily be collected from termite hills). Spread the termites on the island surrounded with water, where they are trapped! Then get into the hide and wait. Once the flufftails have discovered the termites they will keep coming back. When they breed they will bring the young chicks onto your island and after about four or five days the chicks will come over when they feel peckish.
The flufftail’s call is quite weird and unbirdlike. The call has been described as a loud “whooooo”, but while calling, the bird put its beak in the mud and blew bubbles at the same time. It also makes a kick-kick sound. They tend to call more on overcast days and towards evening.
A Red-chested Flufftail nest was for the very first time recorded in South Africa in 1964. Dr Gerry Broekhuizen, Gavin Lestrange (both founding members of the Cape Bird Club) and myself were wading in reeds on the vlei at Klavervlei near Somerset West, looking for waterbird nests. Gavin signalled us to come to him. He had found a nest in a clump of sawgrass, with four white eggs, as big as Thrush eggs. We had seen all the nests on this vlei, but this was a new one. The eggs were very warm, so the bird had been incubating. Dr Broekhuizen had his camera with him, so Gavin and I covered him completely with reeds and grasses, about five metres from the nest, then we splashed away. We arranged to come back in forty minutes. When we got there, Dr Broekhuizen was still shivering with excitement. Not five minutes after we left, the bird came skulking back and went straight onto the nest. The first ever Red-chested Flufftail nest in South Africa had been found!
Gavin, who was manager of the Cape Town branch of an insurance company, had a desk pad printed with the letterhead “Gavin, Lord Flufftail of Klavervlei”.
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