Hope for Hottentot Buttonquail
By Dale Wright
It seems Agulhas National Park may be a stronghold for the enigmatic Hottentot buttonquail, an endangered species hardly ever seen by anyone.
The Hottentot buttonquail Turnix hottentottus is one of the least frequently recorded resident and breeding terrestrial birds in the country. Birders will likely know very well how difficult it is to find this species, which prefers skulking through the undergrowth rather than flitting around for all to see.
A range-restricted fynbos endemic, it was up-listed to Endangered in the 2015 South African Red Data List for Birds. The global population of the species is unknown, but estimated to be fewer than 1,000 mature individuals.
At the onset of our research project in 2015 the South African Bird Atlas Project 2 (SABAP2) contained only six “pentad” records for this species, fewer than any other threatened and endemic South African bird. Alan Lee, co-lead of this project, had previously spent many hours and literally thousands of kilometres traversing the fynbos habitats of the Western Cape, with hardly a sighting of this enigmatic species. We decided something needed to be done about the paucity of information relating to this bird, whilst secretly hoping it wasn’t sliding rapidly towards extinction.
Generous donors understood the immediate need for research on this bird and funds were raised allowing for the first ever biome-wide survey of the species. The surveys targeted much of the Cape Fold Mountains and included many of the beautiful CapeNature Reserves. Walking transects was not for the faint-hearted and involved trekking many kilometres off the beaten track. The team spent time scouring the Gamkaberg, De Hoop and Groot Winterhoek reserves, as well as parts of the Boosmansbos Wilderness Area next to Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve and the West Coast National Park. All of the walking was done off-trail, in order to “flush” a bird, but with utmost attention given to impacts on the sensitive fynbos vegetation.
Hiking high up in the stunning Swartberg and Anysberg reserves offered spectacular scenery to ease stiff limbs. However, we weren’t up there merely to enjoy the beauty and, worryingly, after 100km of such surveys, not a single individual had been found.
Slowly a few sightings popped up here and there. Then we hit the Agulhas Plain and found what might be the stronghold for this rare bird! Wim de Klerk, the local Agulhas Plains birding expert, had reported a few sightings of the species and we were keen to spend some time in this area. The Agulhas National Park was accommodating in allowing us easy access across much of the park and our luck, and perhaps the birds’ too, started to change. In a few short days we flushed as many birds in this area as in the entire total of our previous kilometres. This still represented a meagre 14 birds, but we were over the moon nonetheless.
Our surveys finished with one final push high in the Cederberg and Matjiesrivier reserves. As we hiked down from the Wolfberg Arch we were fortunate to get the first ever record for Hottentot buttonquail in this area.
Our project wrapped up with a final total of 42 individuals encountered across more than 275km of surveys. But at least we now had enough data to develop the habitat and population models that would allow us to build an accurate picture of the species’ conservation status. More importantly, this research indicated that there are likely many more of these little birds wandering around out there than we previously had been led to believe, allowing us to sleep a little easier.
– Dale Wright is Regional Conservation Manager: Western Cape, BirdLife South Africa.
<1,000 mature individuals in the world
100km of surveys without finding a single individual
42 = final tally after more than 275km of surveys
Source: Wild Magazine