I’ll have to admit something. Come clean. Get it off my chest.
I don’t understand Baillon’s Crakes at all.
There, I said it. These tiny rallids have got me all confused. Why do I say that? Well, they seem to defy the normal patterns. They are not strictly a summer visitor in the rainy season, as one might expect. There are frequent winter records, particularly in the northern parts of the subregion. Secondly, Baillon’s Crakes are not restricted to subtropical areas, but also extend into more temperate regions including the Western Cape’s winter-rainfall zone. They are not limited by altitude: I’ve flushed them from lukewarm tropical pans almost at sea-level on the Mozambique coastal plain, and I’ve seen them alongside White-winged Flufftails in high-altitude grassland bogs along the Mpumalanga Escarpment.
Indeed, as far as crakes go, Baillon’s is one of the world’s most widespread species. It occurs widely across Africa south of the equator, with the exception of the driest parts of the Kalahari and Namib; African populations are thought to be resident or locally nomadic. Ditto for populations on Madagascar. The range extends into parts of Europe, the Mediterranean and eastwards across Asia, as far as China. However, the Palearctic populations are migratory, migrating south from August to October, and returning with the spring rains in March to May. Some of these Eurasian birds at least, winter in India and South-East Asia. In other parts of southern Asia the species is resident, as it is in Australia. It has been recorded as a vagrant all over the show. Even in our region, loners are sometimes encountered in the most unlikely settings at isolated temporary pans in the Kalahari or Namibia. So, in summary…a species that occurs across the entirety of the Old World, from sea-level to high altitude, coastal and inland, and resident, nomadic or migratory depending not the location.
First question: who was Baillon? Sounds French? Oui.
Perhaps it’s best to start at the start. First question: who was Baillon? Sounds French? Oui. Baillon’s Crake is named after Louis Antoine Francois Baillon (20 January 1778 to 3 December 1855). Louis was a French naturalist and ornithological collector. He lived at the time of the French Revolution and Napoleon, and worked in the Jardin des Plantes (botanical garden). He possessed a bird collection of around 6,000 specimens (mainly French species and species collected by French expeditions around the world). One of these was a small rallid collected in northern France. Baillon’s colleague and namesake, the influential but reportedly underpaid Louis Vieillot, described this rallid as a new species and named it after Baillon. Only later did it transpire that Peter Pallas already described this species from the Daurian regions of Russia in 1776, two years before little Louis’ birth. Long story short, the undeserved name Baillon’s stuck. Some unsuccessful attempts have been made to change the name to Pallas’ Crake, and the rather generic Marsh Crake or Water Crake is sometimes used.
In terms of the scientific name, most classifications have it under the name Porzana pusilla, along with Little Crake P. parva and Spotted Crake P. porzana (the nominate type of the genus). Porzana is of Venetian origin, and simply means “small crake”. This is emphasized by the specific epithet pusilla, meaning “small or insignificant”. However, some modern classifications use the name Zapornia pusilla (but I don’t think we’ll go too far down that road just now).
To further complicate matters, at least six subspecies are recognized worldwide. The nominate occurs in central and eastern Asia. Ours is P. p. intermedia (which also includes the poorly defined obscura and intensa). The race P. p. mira occurs on Borneo, while mayri occupies New Guinea and palustris Australia. Even New Zealand has its own race, namely affinis.
Things get a little confusing in Afrikaans, where this species is aptly called Kleinriethaan i.e. “Little Crake”. However, this could lead to confusion with the actual Little Crake. Wasn’t really a problem as only Baillon’s occur in South Africa. That is until March 2012, when a lone female Little Crake was discovered in a wetland in the Cape Town suburb of Clovelly. The rather unimaginative solution was to name the latter species “Europese Kleinriethaan” i.e. European Little Crake. Nonsensical, as Baillon’s also occurs in Europe of course! Considering what a big twitch the Clovelly Little Crake caused, I would have gone with something a little more esoteric, like Skaarsriethaan (“Rare Crake”), or Populêre Riethaan (“Popular Crake”) or perhaps Verkeersknoop Riethaan (“Traffic Jam Crake”). Getting off topic…
I would have gone with something a little more esoteric, like Skaarsriethaan (“Rare Crake”), or Populêre Riethaan (“Popular Crake”) or perhaps Verkeersknoop Riethaan (“Traffic Jam Crake”).
Another thing that has always intrigued me is why I don’t hear more Baillon’s Crakes. Indeed, I can only think of a few times that I’ve heard the thin, tinny rattling song of this species. Most recently, it was at night, while camping next to a large wetland near Dullstroom. I just don’t think that they are particularly vocal, nor that their calls are very distinctive or far-carrying. And this applies even to areas where they are breeding. If you’re curious, you can listen to the call on the Xeno-Canto website.
So my experience with Baillon’s Crake consists of maybe, 20-odd disparate and occasional sightings that do not seem to be neatly connected. Some of the sightings have been spectacular. One bird at Marievale literally spent ten minutes foraging in the shallow water alongside my boots. But most sightings have been brief, distant or in flight only, and often in the half-light just before dawn, through a cloud of mosquitos.