The Water Rail or Rallus Aquaticus is one of the genuine oddities among British birds.
Many of its antics can engage is partly because almost every observation in is the elusive species seems tinged with a sense of unexpected revelation.
From its bizarre squealing voice to its occasional penchant for impaling wrens with a spear thrust of its long bill, its plumage, a mixture of brands, grazing buffs, camouflage is it well, dangerous. Every movement it makes seems to be considered beforehand and carried out with stealth.
When can I see them?
The Water Rails which can be found at Saintbridge Nature Reserve are remarkably bold, venturing right out into the open in the middle of the day around mid-afternoon or dusk, where they appear to act as if they still invisible.
There have been two sightings of the water rail on the reserve at different sites.
The Water Rail can be seen foraging in the low silt by the green seat in the wood but you have to be quick to catch them because it looks like a coot or moorhen and it moves a different way. The bird moves like a rodent with its white flash of the tail disappearing into the reeds. The old West country name is skittycock or stickycoot while it is also known as Velvet Runner or Brook Runner. Sometimes it can be found nearly the other feeding site on the opposite side of the pond again in the thick vegetation.
The little Known History of the Water Rail Rallus aquaticus
Absent from most upland areas, they are widespread but thinly distributed across much of Britain and Ireland. Two centuries ago, Thomas Bewick accurately describes the Water Rail as ‘a bird of low wet places much overgrown with sedges reeds and other coarse herbage, amongst which it shelters and feeds in hidden security’.
The stronghold of the Water Rail is south-easterly from Hampshire to Norfolk in the West Midlands, in southern Scotland near the Forth and Clyde estuaries and especially in central Ireland in which country are almost twice as many water rails as there are in Britain.
At one point, in the bird keeping records, the Water Rail was amongst the top 10 most exclusive of birds to see.
So where did the name come from?
The best means of locating a water rail is by its strange voice. An old name for the bird in Norfolk was ‘Sharmer’ or ‘Sharming’ has since become a standard description of the bird’s delivery of its piercing call. It is usually likened to screaming piglets, although water rails repertoire, provokes a wide range of colourful descriptions such as heart rendering and facing groans or a curious rolling out between the purring of the cat to the sound of a frog incessantly uttering purring noises and finally a subdued sort of grunt of a cork being removed from a bottle.
Associated Place Names
Another ancient strand of names Werecock or Warcock which stands for Weir which is a pool gives rise to Warcock Hill in Lancashire which may well be the only place in Britain to commemorate the species.
The Water Rail is largely eating insects or vegetation in its lifestyle and is usually quite timid however, cold weather triggers the registry behaviour that seems very out of character with its diet. It will take and attack other types of bird species. How it does this is to run the bird through with its stiletto like bill seizing the live prey and/or then drowning it. Both methods almost certainly benefit from the victim’s failure to recognise the bird as a threat and chance opportunity seems to force a large part of the behaviour.
I will give you an example. A single Water Rail was introduced to a large aviary and was seen to eat or kill a Greenfinch and a Chinese Quail.
So when it comes to interacting with people, the water rail can be quite tame, walking over the feet of observers. The Water Rail just ignores them and also they are very clever at our findings potential food. For instance, bird ringers working in reedbeds are especially wary of leaving their nets and intended because water rails are well-known to help themselves to a ready course meal tangled in the lowest shelf of the net. At the RSPB’s Leighton Ross reserve routinely scattered 200 to 300 sprats during exceptional cold spells as supplementary food for the winter and Bittern, then that many of these were being taken by an equally hungry band of water rails. Baited traps to try to catch a bit in this part of the radio tracking study their efforts were thwarted because water rails ate all the fish bait. Even placing the fish at a height that was thought only Bitterns could reach, did not work because the water rails learned to jump up and grabbed the fish off it took so activating the trap.
Lord William Percy trained one weird water rail to jump for worms on his improvised fishing rod. So, the water rail is a very intelligent species.
Water Rails at the Reserve.
So here’s a few little facts about the water rail to impress your friends when you visit the reserve plus local links to the records.
There are two individuals FOSP know of within the area and one further north at the Arboretum. The site survey below confirms it. Perhaps they are moving up and down the rivers Sudbrook and Twyver throughout the year. However, one can be found at the reserve every day.
For more details:
it is 23 to 28 cm long, smaller than a moorhen, pepperpot streaky brown, underparts blue-grey, with grey and white barring on the flanks and white under the tail. Bill is long and red. Long legs and toes trail in flight. The juvenile has a brown face with a pale stripe over the eye, paler, more mottled underparts, a pale throat and a dark bill. After nesting, adults undergo the annual moult. Flight feathers are lost simultaneously and they are flightless for about three weeks.
Usually shy and skulking, and more often heard and seen in winter or when it becomes used to people, the Water Rail can be surprisingly seen on a regular basis. It is usually solitary outside the breeding season and defends a winter territory. It’s slim body allows it to slip through dense waterside vegetation. Walking cautiously, flicking its tail. When alarmed it will run, head down to cover. Frequently swims over short distances. The flight appears weaker using rather long wings.
It makes a variety of grunts and squeals during the day and night. The most obvious call is the drawn-out squealing shriek, rather like a piglet.
It feeds in the water and on land. Catches small fish, freshwater shrimps, frogs, small snails, insects and their larvae. Eats berries and other fruit, shoots and roots of plants such as watercress. it will catch and eat small birds and eats carrion.
It breeds in dense reed beds and marshes with low cover and some open muddy areas. Also along rivers, around lakes and ponds and in the winter, close to other wet places. Usually, it is associated with freshwater. Visits brackish lagoons and salt marshes.
It nests on the ground amongst dense vegetation close to the water, Water Rails lay between March and June and then the young are brooded in the nest for a few days, fed by both parents. Once they’re out of the nest, they soon feed themselves and fly within 20 to 30 days and become independent about 55 days later. They continue breeding well into August with the second brood.
Movements and migrations
British and Irish Water Rails are mainly resident. Northern populations are migratory during October and November, Britain receives birds from northern and eastern Europe. These individuals return in the following March and April. The oldest ringed bird lived for over eight years.
There are thought to be over 1,100 territories in Britain and a further 1,000 – 2,500 in Ireland. There is some evidence that the breeding population is falling in several parts of its range including the UK.
The Water Rail is thinly scattered over much of lowland Britain with larger concentrations in East Anglia. Ireland has higher densities of water rails than Britain. Winter distribution is similar, but with rather more individuals being seen in southern England. It breeds in Europe from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia and east into Russia. And can also be found in Asia and North Africa.
Once common but now due to the drainage of marshes and freshwater and loss of vegetation along waterways, there are reduced numbers. It is adversely affected by several winters that freeze over shallow water, and dry summers may also present problems. Conversely, changing water levels during wet summers destroy active nests. Recent initiatives by the RSPB and other conservation bodies recreated large reedbeds and this should help the species.