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Saturday, 10 January 2015

Skulking amongst the reeds

The Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus) is not a particularly common bird; not particularly rare; neither large nor small; not difficult to identify...
...but I'm not alone in always being delighted to see one.

You see, Water Rails are normally shy and elusive. You rarely see them fly. They live in wetland, amongst reeds and other dense vegetation. They not only live there, but they are perfectly adapted to the habitat. A smaller, sleeker, grey-and-brown-coloured relative of the Moorhen, they have a narrow body to fit between reed stems. The word "skulking" seems perfect for them  as they move through the vegetation in shallow water searching for small food items with their bright red, long, pointed bill.
I just described them as grey-and-brown-coloured, but that really doesn't do them justice.

Seen close-up, the plumage may not be bright (which would be very poor camouflage in a reedbed), but it is beautifully patterned and very smart. The grey face, neck, breast and belly has a slightly blueish feel, and the brown back is flecked with darker, almost black, feather-centres. The flanks have a delicate black and white striped pattern, and under the tail is an inverted U-shape in white similar to the stripes on their larger cousin, the Moorhen. The pointed, bright red bill and red eye completed the picture. Definitely a handsome bird.

You hear them more often than you see them. They have an eerie squealing call, which they sometimes make in response to another loud sound. If you're out in the reedbeds at dusk and a Cetti's Warbler sings, don't be surprised if a Water Rail squeals in response.

I've not managed to get a good recording of the squeal (it's on my list for 2015!), but in March 2013, at Rainham Marshes, I was lucky enough to capture this sound recording of a less-often heard, slightly tremulous courtship call.

Just occasionally, a Rail will venture out into the open. Even then, it's rarely far from the safety of that jungle of reeds... and when it appears, it's always great to see it!
Since the beginning of the year, though, visitors to Rainham Marshes, with a little patience, have been able to see a couple of Rails who seem to have become used to people. I shot these clips over a period of just an hour.