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Playing Survivor With a Flufftail | Mark Tittley

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

I have a confession to make - I am obsessed with photographing Flufftails. What else would account for the fact that I have 103 albums of photos from outings to Marievale Bird Sanctuary and one of my main goals has been to spend time attempting to photograph Red-chested Flufftails. On this occasion on the 21st January 2019, we arrived at Marievale around 7am - instead of our usual 6am arrival time - and had a close up sighting of a Spotted Eagle Owl near the mobile hide on the way to the deeper part of the sanctuary. We stopped briefly at the Duiker hide and enjoyed fairly close views of Great Crested Grebe before continuing down towards the Old Bus Stop just before the spot where a mobile hide used to be parked. Like the reality show, Survivor, my goal was to Outwit, Outplay and Outlast a male Red-chested Flufftail before returning home. The wisdom I have gained over the years photographing Flufftails suggests that the best strategy to use is the Outlast one - it is a very rare exception when you will park somewhere and begin to photograph a Flufftail. You have to pack a big flask of coffee and snacks for an early morning stakeout if you want any hope of being somewhat successful. It takes patience and then some more patience.

On this morning we pulled off the road into a parking area where cars can pass each other (knowing that moving to let cars pass would start the wait over from scratch each time). We settled in at around 7:45 for what would be a rather long wait. We played the call of the Red-chested Flufftail and got a fairly quick response but it sounded like it was far off from the road and deep in the reeds. I did play the call occasionally and honestly there were many moments that we considered packing it in and moving on, despite the somewhat decent bird sightings that we had around us - like an African Marsh Harrier flying overhead. Thankfully it was a quiet morning at Marievale - we tend to do our birding mostly on a Monday, but this was a Friday morning and no major rarities had been reported that week so the “traffic” was really light! The armed response vehicle drove past once or twice but we hunkered down and fought the temptation to walk around out of boredom. If you want to survive at his version of Survivor, then walking around is out of the question.

It was my wife, Debbie, who first spotted the little beauty sitting in the grass on the edge of the gravel road at 9:50. You always think you are ready to snap a pic but it is always chaos when the moment actually arrives. I managed to hastily take a few shots of the male bird peering out at us while cautiously looking around all the time:

Red-chested Flufftail at Marievale Bird Sanctuary, South Africa |
Red-chested Flufftail at Marievale Bird Sanctuary, South Africa | Mark Tittley

It is common to get this far with a Flufftail to only have them turn around and disappear into the reeds, but maybe by now it had gotten used to us parked in the same spot and we obviously were not regarded as a threat. Our hearts nearly stopped beating when it tentatively started to make its way out of the grass and onto the side of the road in plain view. No matter how many times you have had a decent encounter with a Flufftail it is always an exhilarating experience. We were parked not much more than about 5 or 6 meters away and sadly the lighting was horrible - actually an overcast day is a mixed blessing because from my experience it is rare to see a Flufftail when the sun is shining brightly. Thankfully distance was not a problem with my 400mm Canon Lens on my EOS50D Canon body. I anticipated the bird suddenly making a quick dash and set my shutter speed to 1/1250, my aperture to F9 and cranked up the ISO to 1600 (about as high as I dare go on my old camera). The following pic was take at the moment that it plucked up the courage to move from the grass onto the road:

Red-chested Flufftail
Red-chested Flufftail | Mark Tittley

This was one of the more inquisitive males I have spent time with because it literally strutted across the road before heading back to where it had come from - and thankfully I was able to capture some fairy decent shots although none of them pin-sharp as you always hope for, especially given the overcast conditions and the fact that the bird seldom stopped moving. One of the best pics that I took on that morning, and which I was delighted to pass on to Niall Perrins for inclusion in the newest version of the Sasol eBirds App, was this one:

Red-chested Flufftail
Red-chested Flufftail | Mark Tittley

So maybe in my game of Survivor that morning I was able to Outlast the Flufftail, but actually it was the one who won the competition as it was able to Outwit and Outplay me by taking it’s time to appear and then giving me just those few moments before disappearing! What an amazing game this is!!! I honestly can’t wait for us to move to a lower alert level of lockdown so I can reconnect with the Flufftails at Marievale!

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