Flufftails and other “bogey birds”

This most recent weekend Jeanie was in Canada for work so it made a lot of sense for us to camp down with my parents in George so that I would have some babysitting assistance from my mother.

It also meant that we were outside our Challenge area and so any birding would be a little less urgent and a lot less competitive.

So, there is not much of significance to blog about but it did give me cause to think about a specific aspect of birding. What I really wanted to blog about was the concept of “bogey birds”.

I’m never sure of my audience, so this birding term may need some explanation. A bogey bird is generally a bird that eludes a birder despite some degree of effort to see it. The more you try and find it the more it tends to elude you, and what generally happens is that all birders, except you, manage to see it with relative ease. It is enough to cause considerable psychological damage.  Not only does it cause internal strife but it also becomes the source of a fair amount of ridicule from close birding mates.

“How can you not have seen XYZ bird?  I’ve seen plenty of them” they will say with a slightly patronising tone.

It must be clarified that bogey birds are different to birds that are missed on once-off trips (more commonly known as “dips”).

You can never say that the Black-faced Babbler that you just happened to be unlucky enough to miss on a once-off trip to Namibia is a bogey bird – rather just a very unfortunate dip (perhaps you can sense that there is some pain there?).

The number one bogey bird on my list is probably Montagu’s Harrier. It is starting to get to me a little. I will acknowledge that most of my birding is done in the Cape, and I have probably not spent enough time in the right areas to guarantee this one, but I certainly feel I have done enough to have added it to my list.

Interestingly, I have seen the less regular ringtail harrier (Pallid) on at least 4 occasions, but yet Monty’s remains elusive. On a recent trip to the Zaagkuildrift Road I spotted a ringtail on the horizon and despite thinking for sure that this was my time, a review of my photos revealed that it was yet another Pallid. 

My close shave with a Montagu’s Harrier

Lesser Crested Tern is another bird that eludes me. This one is probably not quite yet in the full category of bogey bird as I have spent very little time on the Zululand coastline in summer, which is where this bird is pretty regular. I actually twitched a “Lesser Crested Tern” at Strandfontein about 8 years ago, which was all well and good, until it seemed to me that its bill was too drooped and too rich in colour. It actually turned out to be Southern Africa’s first Elegant Tern. That wasn’t quite as painful as the Montagu’s Harrier that turned into a Pallid.

The great thing about bogey birds, though, is that everyone has them.

And, as much as you might receive a fair amount of ridicule from your birding mates about your bogey birds, there is always ample opportunity to remind them of theirs.

I suppose that is really where I am going with this blog.

I am not really posting this blog to talk about my bogey birds, but rather someone else’s. Fortunately, there is a specific link to this most recent weekend’s birding activity.

I have a very good birding friend. For the sake of anonymity (as this may lead to some of that ridicule) let’s call him “Dave”. Dave and I have been birding together for many years, at least 15 or so, that I can recall. We did a birding big day together in the year 2000 and that was where we got to know each other.

It is important to mention that Dave is a very accomplished birder. His Southern African list numbers well over 840 (although he is a little coy about his exact number) and he is one of the better birders that I know. I can’t think of too many occasions where I have had to correct him on the ID of a wader, raptor, bird call or pipit (although I think Long-tailed was somewhere on his list).

In fact, I think he has corrected me on plenty along the way. But, what is really great is that Dave has a number one bogey bird that sticks out like a sore thumb, and is the source of plenty of ridicule.

The worst of it for him is that this particular species is a common resident in the Western Cape and, although it can be a little tricky to see given its furtive habits, it really should have been ticked by Dave given the fact that he is born and bred in the Western Cape and has done more birding than most.

That species is Red-chested Flufftail.

Beginner birders will know that the flufftail page in the book is pretty much out of bounds. It was a page in my book that remained untouched for many years. I always wondered what the hell the point was of having them there in the first place as I had never seen one myself in my first 20 years as a birder, and I actually didn’t even know of anyone that had.

Not even the common ones like Red-chested.

After many years in the field I eventually saw my first Red-chested in the Natal Midlands and over the years I have seen them a few more times.

Pausing the “bogey bird” story for a moment, it is worth mentioning that one of my most memorable birding moments was finding probably the trickiest of all flufftails right in my back yard. On the day that Emma was born, about two and a half years ago, I took Tommy and Adam up to Silvermine Nature Reserve for a walk in the mountains to get them out of the hospital after the excitement of the arrival of their little sister.

Striped Flufftail habitat

I spend a lot of time in Silvermine with all the mountain biking that I do in that part of the city. Despite all that time I had never heard a Striped Flufftail there before, but knew they were around as one of my good riding mates had seen one cross the trail in front of him whilst I was about 5 metres behind. I cursed him for it, but really cursed myself for not being a little fitter and hence being the rider in front.

Anyway, on that September 7 afternoon (Jeanie will never let me forget that date given it was the day Emma was born) we walked up towards Elephants Eye when I heard the unmistakable whining rattle coming from the Fynbos a few metres from the path.

It is not the kind of call one would miss.

We quickly walked into the fynbos, found a slightly more open patch and played a short burst of the tape. The response was immediate and within seconds all three of us had had point blank views of one of Southern Africa’s most elusive birds.

At the time I was also fortunate to get a photo of it (albeit a slightly poor one).

Striped Flufftail
Tommy and Adam discussing a successful Striped Flufftail twitch

Subsequent to that season of seeing the Striped Flufftail in Silvermine I have heard them on a few occasions but I have just never managed to get a view again. I am pretty pleased it is ticked off as it holds the same degree of difficulty as Knysna Warbler and, once seen and photographed, there is very little incentive to try and do so again as it usually ends in disappointment.

I have also had a very brief glimpse of a Buffspotted in the Alphen Greenbelts in Constantia late one night, but that is another story altogether and is probably not easily told without some legal ramifications.

The point is that I have at least started to fill the gaps in my flufftail page.

So, getting back to the Red-chested Flufftail.

The reason I thought of Dave and his bogey bird was the fact that I decided I would try and get a photograph of one this last weekend. My parents live on an estate in George which has access to a series of wetlands that I would argue has the highest density of Red-chested Flufftails anywhere in the world. There is a section of the grassland/wetland where they literally call from every clump of grass, and it is hard to know where to focus one’s efforts when trying to see them.

Wetlands in George
Wetlands in George

Seeing a flufftail requires some use of tape playback. I know a lot of birders are averse to this method, but anyone that has seen a flufftail has either used the tape or has flushed one by walking through the habitat. If you have seen one in other circumstances then I would suggest that you head straight to the roulette tables at the Grand West Casino and put all your money down on your favourite number, as you have a higher chance of winning at Roulette than you have of seeing a flufftail without playback.

So, I headed off with my father and my two birding boys (Tommy and Adam) and we sat patiently amongst the habitat in a slight clearing and played the tape quietly hoping to get a glimpse.

Waiting patiently for our sighting

The first surprise was having the one male respond about a metre away from my father while he was sitting in the grass. It was quite amusing to see the look on his face as he was completely unable to turn around to see the bird lest he frighten it away. The call was surprisingly loud and although it was only a metre away none of us could see the bird.

It remained very well concealed and, once finished with its repertoire, it most likely crept away and resumed its activities at another section of the grassed slope.

My perseverance ultimately paid off when I noticed some movement amongst the restios about 3 or 4 metres away. It was the female that seemed to be a little braver than the male and she had ventured a little closer to the margin of the grass stems and was working her way through her daily routine of collecting grass.

I was fortunate that she seemed reasonably relaxed about my presence and so I was able to fire off a few shots before she bustled back into the darkest of little holes in the vegetation. As much as I would have loved to have photographd the more strikingly plumaged male bird I was still delighted to get a reasonably clear shot of the female.

Red-chested Flufftail

We spent at least another hour in different sections of the grassland trying different methods and, although we all had brief, but decent, views of the male and female birds, I was just not able to get a better photo.

No matter though, there was proof enough to throw in Dave’s direction and remind him of his failings as a birder. The greatest risk of these gloating moments is that they only last for so long. The wheel always turns and I feel, for sure, that Dave will eventually get his Red-chested Flufftail and my fun will be over.

I need to add that there should always be a reasonable level of decorum when it comes to these childish games that we play. I have another good birding mate (let’s call him Dom for the sake of his anonymity) who has spent just as much time ridiculing Dave for his missing flufftail as I have. I recently learnt, however, that his only sighting of a Red-chested Flufftail was a dodgy view of a flushed female bird that, in my opinion, does not really count at all.

I’ll be honest, I was pretty surprised at his cockiness when ridiculing Dave given his extremely dubious views himself. I will acknowledge that I was a little disappointed as well.

Anyway, I think I’ll finish this off by wishing Dave and Dom the best of luck with their quest for a Red-chested Flufftail. If they need any help I’ll be happy to oblige and I am sure there are plenty of other birders out there who are just as happy to do the same.

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