It was always going to be a long shot. Tamar Mason had let me know – once again, and for the third year in a row – that her resident Buff-spotted Flufftails had produced young in the damp shrubberies alongside irrigation canals around their house at The Artist’s Press*. I’d been out to this lovely little farm on previous occasions to seek out this rare and exhaustingly secretive bird – but no luck with a species that has eluded me for over 30 years.
As it so often seems to happen with elusive birds, the flufftails invariably appear when one is: a) not expecting them or b) engaged in some other activity. Should anyone actually have the OBJECTIVE of seeing such a bird, the odds of encountering it drop alarmingly. Tamar and her family see the birds fairly often, skipping across pathways, flicking through the leaf litter and – once – flying into their car through its open door when it was parked in the driveway!
I have never regarded myself as a twitcher, although I have certainly been off on many a quest to find strange or wonderful birds in far-flung places. I don’t NEED to see a flufftail to tick it off on any list. On the other hand, I am susceptible to a challenge and no bird has challenged me quite as much as the Buff-spotted Flufftail. Not much larger than a sparrow, this little rallid is best known for its mournful hooting call given at night and less often on damp overcast days. Like the foghorn of a lost ship in the mist, so the flufftail’s call is similarly hard to pinpoint. “Whuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu” . . . the bird can be hooting from a shrub 2 metres off the ground within arms distance, and sound as though it is on the ground 5 metres away.
Apart from a few random encounters with this master ventriloquist at places such as Dwesa, Woodbush, Vumba and Plettenburg Bay it is right here at home where the haunting began . . and continues. Nelspruit lies in the sub-tropical foothills of the Drakensberg escarpment and sometimes experiences prolonged periods of overcast and drizzly weather during the summer. At such times, Buff-spotted Flufftails can be heard in the wooded valleys such as the one in which our suburban property ‘Turaco Wood’ is nestled. I really have lost count of the number of times that I’ve been out at night with a torch and sound recorder in pursuit of this feathery little frustration. On one particularly memorable occasion, not too many moons ago, I recall lying on my back beneath a sprawling Dalbergia thicket – midnight mosquitoes were siphoning blood from my ears, steady drizzle was falling and a flufftail was booming out its low-pitched call right above me. Attempts to lure it closer with call playback had failed hopelessly, and I had now adopted a technique of stealth and silence where I would wait motionless for the next eerie hoot, try to pinpoint its direction, and then turn on the beam of my torch. In between, I would just lie there in the dark, hoping to see some movement in the tracery of thorny branches while mosquitoes became bloated. This bizarre behaviour carried on for three nights before I admitted defeat.
Fast-forward to January 2013, and there I was chatting away and sipping tea with Tamar, Mark, Simon and Maru on their verandah when a slight movement caught our attention just a couple of yards away. This was followed by a series of peeps and other soft contact calls. The flufftails had arrived! I raised my binoculars just in time to see a juvenile – just a bundle of charcoal feathers really – step across a gap between the ferns and stems. The adults were close . . they were on the other side of a path, just behind the youngster, we could hear them. My pulse quickened. Rather than get up I thought it best to just remain seated and wait. A minute passed, then another minute, followed by a further, different minute**. The youngster had disappeared and all was now still and quiet. Why was that? Oh, look, there’s a grey-and-white cat on the pathway! The flufftails had either gapped it quietly, or were hunkered down waiting for the predator (albeit an ineffective one with a bell around its neck) to depart. So, that was it, was it? Show over. I had actually seen a flufftail, but knowing that the adults were right there and had eluded me yet again, made it somehow unsatisfactory.
For the next hour or so, I wandered around the wonderful garden, pausing to sit on benches now and again, in the hope that the flufftails would show themselves. The habitat was truly perfect for them, lots of feeding opportunities beneath leafy shrubs, all the better to hide under. Then, just as I had come to the conclusion that my flufftail experience was over, I rounded a corner and a tiny quail-like bird flushed from a clump of ginger, flipped over a stand of lemon-grass, then crash-landed into the base of a banana plant. It was brown and blotchy – a female. I didn’t even have time to raise my binoculars this time, she was gone in a flash.
Driving home, I felt rather ashamed at being so unsatisfied with the events. I HAD seen a flufftail, TWO actually, after YEARS of being baited by their haunting call, but it didn’t seem enough. I guess I want more than a couple of split-second glances – I’d like to marvel at the sight of an adult male – just a brief look into its dark chestnut eyes in that glowing, orange face.
The Artist’s Press, Brondal Valley, White River, South Africa. January 2013.
If these after-the-fact sketches seem rather hurried and blurry, then I would have done a pretty good job of capturing the moments.
* The Artist’s Press specialise in handprinted lithographs and represent many of the finest South African artists. Take a look at what they do and view their selection of available prints at www.artprintsa.com . Tamar & Mark are local pioneers when it comes to green, organic living . . be inspired by what they do: www.artprintsa.com/green-living
** in homage to Monty Python