Saturday, 1 October 2016
Bird of the week - Water rail
The water rail is a secretive bird and is much less visible than its cousins the moorhen and the coot. It it most often heard squealing in the reedbeds or glimpsed at the edges of the reeds but occasionally one wanders into view, as this one did this morning in Gosforth Park.
More commonly the only view is a brief one as it scurries across open ground.
The young birds lack the adults' fine colouring. I got several pictures of them on the trail cameras a few weeks ago when I was trying to capture a water shrew.
Both the rails and the shrews liked the dried mealworms.
This young rail managed to keep its head perfectly still for the camera while doing the twist.
The water rail is Rallus aquaticus, meaning water rail! It is mostly found in the wetter parts of the east of the UK.
Numbers seem to be on the increase.
The UK water rail population is thought to be around 1000 territories (breeding pairs) but because of its behaviour it is a difficult bird to survey. I helped James with a water rail survey in Gosforth Park Nature Reserve in the spring where he played a recording of the rail's territorial call at multiple sites in the reserve and we listed for responses. We reckoned there were at least 8 pairs and 2 single birds in the Park.
Despite being a reluctant flier it can be a migratory bird, although the UK population mostly stays put in the winter. This is what Thomas Bewick had to say about it in A History of British Birds vol II published in 1832.
Bewick also knew it as the brook runner.
This picture was painted by the Scottish wildlife artist, Archibald Thorburn.
Water rails make a lot of noise and emit a variety of squeals and grunts. The territorial call is known as sharming and can be heard here. You can listen to Chris Packham's BBC Radio 4 Tweet of the Day on water rail here.