Not just about flufftails

Dr Kyle Lloyd, Rockjumper Fellow of White-winged Flufftail Conservation, says that his research project about these mysterious birds hopes to help preserve the endangered wetlands which they and the rest of creation relies.

By James van den Heever

Kyle Lloyd out in the field

Dr Lloyd and his wife moved to Dullstroom in September 2020 to begin an exciting research project on the elusive and Critically Endangered White-winged Flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi). These birds are habitat specialists, and are highly threatened owing to the degradation of the wetlands which they live in. Some estimates are that only around 50 individuals remain but, he says, research is ongoing to establish a more robust scientific count. The reality is that landowners were once encouraged to drain their wetlands, so the vast network of wetlands along the escarpment has been reduced and many of the remaining wetlands are under severe pressure from mismanagement, habitat loss and water pollution by mining effluent, water abstraction and other threats.

The project began when White-winged Flufftails were spotted at the Middelpunt Wetland in 1992, after not having been seen for many years. It is now clear that they are breeding there—a major observation as it was previously thought that they only bred in Ethiopia.

Malcolm Drummond and Deon Coetzee set up the Middelpunt Wetland Trust in 1994 to lease the wetland from its owners (now Dullstroom Trout Farm) to provide a protected site for the birds. Middelpunt Wetland is part of the Greater Lakenvlei Protected Environment.

White-winged Flufftail in flight in the sedge meadows at Middelpunt (Photograph: Warwick Tarboton)

The birds have also been observed at Verloren Valei Nature Reserve and so Dr Lloyd’s research will cover this area as well. Around 32 camera traps have been erected at Verloren Valei, with others at Middelpunt and elsewhere.

Past studies at Middelpunt offer some clues as to what habitat conditions the White-winged Flufftail requires—sedge meadows, ankle-deep water and a minimum of 80% vegetation cover. But significant knowledge gaps still remain about the bird’s ecology, and intensive research is needed both at Middelpunt and Verloren Valei to conserve the species better. He is also looking at other sites where they have been recorded in the past, in order to see if they are still there and to begin building a clearer picture of population numbers and distribution.

White-winged Flufftail, taken in Ethiopia (Photograph: Warwick Tarboton)

In the winter months, says Dr Lloyd, all of the data from the cameras and other sensors at various sites will be processed and analysed. The amount of data involved are huge and he and his colleagues at BirdLife South Africa have been working at developing a machine-learning model to do much of the donkey work.

A wider set of goals

Dr Lloyd believes that the White-winged Flufftail project is important in itself because so little is known about these birds, but also because it has a wider set of goals as well. He hopes the project will act as an ambassador for wetland conservation in general, and will also serve as a catalyst for building a greater understanding of the huge role that wetlands play ecologically.

Wetlands are environments not only for these birds but also for a big range of flora, fauna and insects. They also deliver vital services to the broader ecosystem on which all depend. For example, wetlands filter and purify water, and act as reservoirs that release water slowly into the riverine systems, thus reducing the risk of flooding. Wetlands form complex systems, and our understanding of them is still fairly basic. Dr Lloyd says his research approach is designed to contribute to our understanding of how wetland systems work, and thus how best to manage them.

“In the end, we hope to develop best-practice guidelines for landowners, and thus slowly begin changing the misconception that wetlands can be managed in the same way as the surrounding grassland habitat,” he says. “Our wetlands are not in good shape, but by making information available to landowners we hope to initiate rehabilitation for the ultimate benefit of not just flufftails but all forms of life, including humans.”

Read more about the grasses on our wetlands.

A passion for applied science
Kyle Lloyd grew up in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, where he developed a love of nature and a concern for humanity’s impact on the environment. He studied for his BSc at Rhodes University where a friend got him hooked on bird watching. His MSc dissertation was on the effect of predation on Sociable Weavers. He realised he wanted a career using his scientific knowledge in the field, and did a stint on Marion Island as an adventure. He then completed his PhD on the Population and individual life history consequences of polygyny in male southern elephant seals.
He says that he and his wife are loving Dullstroom’s small community life and closeness to nature.

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