Off the Rails with the Crakes

“Wildness reminds us what it means to be human, what we are connected to rather than what we are separate from.”
— Terry Tempest Williams

Please excuse the play on words in the title of this post, the last thing I want to do is personify our avian friends. Crakes are closely related to the Rail family as are Coots, Moorhens, Flufftails and Gallinules. This family of water birds all have a characteristic flick of the tail – not sure why but they do!!

Flufftails look like pigmy Crakes. You will find them in  the Dullstroom area, if you are lucky. The lack of images is testament to my sightings and photographic opportunities of Flufftails.

Crakes are generally secretive birds which frequent marshy areas. There are six types of Crake found in southern Africa, the Baillons, Corn, African, Black, Spotted and Striped.

The Corn, African and Black Crakes are most often seen. You will find the Striped in Zimbs and the Spotted is found in a similar area to the African Crake and is also a rare summer visitor. The Black Crake is the most common and the sightings are most often on the fringes of reed-beds where they open out on pontoons of water-lilies. Crakes are quite capable of lily trotting as a they also have long toes, but not as long as the Jacanas. These secretive birds are easily disturbed and quickly run back into the reeds.

Black Crake looking for insects on the lily pads on on the Chobe River

Black Crake looking for insects on the lily pads on on the Chobe River

The striking colouring of the Black Crake is quite something. It you had a blank canvas would you have come up with colouring like that for a relatively secretive marsh bird?

The Black Crake's lemon yellow beak is an unusual colour in the bush

The Black Crake’s lemon yellow beak is an unusual colour in the bush

The Black Crake tends to feed close to the reeds so when it comes out into the open on the lily pads looking for insects and snails, it is a feast for the eyes. Enjoy it because it will not last long. They have no natural defenses other than to hide, so skulking sounds like a pretty reasonable ploy. I have seen Black Crakes along the Chobe, at White River and in the Kruger at Leeuwpan.

Although Crakes are waterbirds they do not have webbed feet but are good swimmers because of their toe-flanges are similar to those of a Coot or Moorhen. Anyone interested in learning more about water birds should go to Marievale just north of Nigel. It does not look great being a derelict gold mine but  the birds seem to congregate there in amazing variety of birds and abundance.

African Crake - an uncommon visitor to Marievale

African Crake – an uncommon visitor to Marievale\

Each time I have seen a Crake at Marievale, it has been on  the narrow road through the marsh area. It has also been early in the morning, between six and seven.

African Crake at Marievale - early in the morning

African Crake at Marievale – early in the morning

The colouring of the African Crake’s back is cryptic so it is just as well I got to see it on a dew drenched road, as it would have been well camouflaged in amongst dry reeds.

You will also see an African Rail fleetingly, if you are lucky – Marievale always turns up some surprises.

Marievale-0413 068

One of the fascinating aspects about the Crakes is they are secretive and do not seem to fly easily when disturbed, yet they undertake long distance flights at night. The  African and  Striped are inter-African migrants and the Corn and Spotted are Paleartic migrants.

Crakes have  broad rounded wings which enable them to take-off almost vertically, a useful skill when you inhabit reed beds. These birds would rather run to hide than fly when disturbed and when they fly their legs dangle down very much like Gallinules, which make the idea of them migrating  quite hard to conceive.

As with most families their members all  have different behaviour. The Black Crake is a co-operative breeder where all group members participate in preening, incubation and chick rearing. On the other side, the Striped are polyandrous, where the female is bigger, noisier and more colourful than the male and has multiple partners. Unlike humans, polyandry is thought to occur in birds where there is high predation of its eggs. A similar tactic is used by brood-parasites like Cuckoos for the same reason.

 I hope your found this blog interesting and that it prompts you to take a closer look at those marsh areas in summertime.

“Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.”
― Theodore Roosevelt

Seek to understand nature, marvel at its interconnectedness and then let it be.

Have fun

Mike

One thought on “Off the Rails with the Crakes

  1. Mike. Very interesting piece. I have only photographed the Black Crake and the African Rail. Seems like a trip to Marievale is required. Keep on writing and thanks for the mention on your blog.

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