What a Rail!

They are a bird that is actually fairly common in the watery habitats of Britain, but one that very few people tend to see. You may however have heard it on many occasions but not realised, wondering what is that harsh screech coming from the dense vegetation. Most are more familiar with their less secretive cousins, the coot and moorhen. While ringing and nesting in the reed beds at Cranwich we often hear this secretive and elusive bird but today’s trip would end with a rather special encounter as we caught one in one our traps. It is the water rail.

A busy ringing session had seen us process just over 50 birds, numbers bumped up by young recently fledged robins with their speckled brown plumage and long tailed tits with their chocolatey brown faces and deep red eye ring. With the wind picking up and the nets down most of the team had drifted away, to spend their Saturday afternoon elsewhere either checking other sites for nests or even heading home for a nap (well we had all been up since 4 am!). It was the last check of the trap, one final chance to see if we had been successful. The water rail is not the easiest of species to catch, and only three have been ringed on site since we began monitoring years ago. It appears though that Lee seems to have cracked it, with two of those three birds having been ringed this year. It is likely that we only have two or three pairs on site so it’s not like there are huge numbers to go for. However with some careful monitoring of where calling birds have been heard, and with the discovery of a beautiful nest, we are building a picture of the territories on site. Lee suspected that there was another pair at the end of one of our net rides, and so the trap had been set.

A beautiful water rail nest

Standing in the slightly muddy ride, surrounded by the tall reeds and willows I listen to the sounds of the reed bed. The now constant chatter of reed warblers, their nesting in full swing, the distinctive song of the male cuckoo joined by the bubbling call of females, the song of reed bunting, and the persistent high pitched twitter of those families of long tailed tit. At the end of the ride Lee emerges from the reeds, at first glance he appears to be empty handed, before revealing from behind his back the very bird I had been hoping for. It is a water rail!

Back at the car, I process the bird with care. It is wriggly, threatening to give me the slip. It is so much smaller than expected. Compared with the coot and moorhen I have held and seen up close, it is tiny! And so much daintier. The classic flailing of legs, scratching out with clawed feet is typical of handling any rail though. It is the perfect opportunity to take a really good look at this bird, one that if you are lucky enough to see it is usually over in a flash. Its long curved bill is red, as is on close inspection its dark eye. The sides of its head, neck and its underparts are a steely, bluish grey, a deep chestnut brown streak runs from the top of its head right the way onto its back where the feathers have deep black centres. Its flanks are barred with white and black. It is a beautiful bird.

A beautiful water rail

The assessment reveals that this bird is in fact already ringed. Far from being a disappointment this may be the most interesting fact. The bird was ringed at the other side of the pool where we caught it, only a month or so earlier. It seems the bird’s breeding territory may be larger than originally suspected and that the males (which is what we suspect this to be) move around more than we initially thought. It is a very interesting piece to the Cranwich water rail population puzzle.

We return the bird to the edge of the reed bed where we caught it, where on letting it go it wastes no time in scampering away into the dense growth. Once more becoming just that elusive screech from among the reeds.


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