As a family, and all around the world, crakes are among the most reclusive of birds. Not only do they live out their lives in damp, tangled marshes and boggy swamps, but they are shy and skittish in the extreme. Here in Africa, however, there is one exception to this rule and that is the dapper little Black Crake. This dove-sized bird – coal-black with lime-yellow bill and scarlet legs – regularly wanders from the reeds and bulrushes it calls home to search for insects, tadpoles and other prey in fairly open situations. It treads jerkily about on its elongated toes always with one eye on any possible danger, retreating hastily to cover if threatened.
Watching these little fowl scamper about is always a treat, so I was thrilled to discover that a pair have taken up residence in a small wetland on the Penryn College Campus outside Nelspruit. I walk here several mornings each week and was stopped in my tracks in early May by the distinctive throaty call of these crakes. The sound was coming from the reedbeds where the dry, disused nests of weavers are now being slowly taken apart by the autumn winds.
Since then, I have encountered these crakes on several occasions in and around the Penryn wetland, and even on the fringe of the adjacent rugby field. Early this morning I watched one of the crakes fly out of a ditch, land on a spongy mass of flattened grass, and gaze back at me. Content that I was too far off to cause it any harm, it stepped forward, stabbed into the herbage and pulled out a squealing cricket!
Penryn College Campus, Nelspruit, South Africa, June 2013.
Note: Crakes belong to the Rallidae family, which also includes coots, moorhens, gallinules, flufftails and rails. There are about 134 species worldwide, with 26 in Africa. One of the best and most reliable places to watch the Black Crake is at the Lake Panic Bird Hide near Skukuza in the southern Kruger National Park.