Thursday 9 February 2017

Jack Runners and Bog Sparrows 8th February 2017

Jack Runner is an old country name for the Water Rail as is Bog Sparrow for the Reed Bunting although another old name for the bunting, 'Toad Snatcher' also quite appeals! Encouraged by my success at getting close views of both species a few days ago I resolved to repeat the experience, if possible today, by returning to the hide for another morning of solitary vigil and quiet contemplation.

A bleak, depressing, typical February day greeted me, where all colour seemed to have been drained from both land and sky as a grey, amorphous shroud of dank air hung over a sullen land in my part of Oxfordshire. It was bitterly cold walking between the reservoirs to the hide, the waters on either side quiescent and grey, as there was no wind to speak of and the grass on the reservoir banks remained wet and chilled from the overnight rain.

Despite this there was hope in the air. Spring is not far away as evidenced by Song Thrushes, stimulated by the lengthening daylight, that have sought out exposed perches from which to loudly proclaim their song of repeated phrases, as if in defiance of the weather and prevailing mood. Robins also are in pairs now and each have their territory marked out and defend it with song too.

I figured that such a depressing morning and on a Wednesday at that was hardly likely to tempt anyone out to go birding  or for general exercise and therefore the hide would very likely be empty, as it was on my previous visit, which is virtually essential if one is to see any Water Rails. Constantly afraid of their own shadow, they require a regime of absolute silence and no movement on the part of the observer if the birds are not to take alarm and remain forever in the cover of the rank sedges and reeds outside the hide.

The hide as predicted was empty and it was a relief to get inside out of the cold but such relief was only temporary, and soon negated when I opened the viewing slats to inevitably allow the cold air in, and to view once again the familiar area of cut reeds, sedge and muddy margins below the hide.

After a few minutes some Reed Buntings flew down to the wet margins, now made narrower than last time as about an inch of water from the overnight rain had covered some of the previously exposed mud and dead reed matter. It was very still, as quiet as a mouse and there, as if in confirmation was a tiny mouse searching for seeds in and under the rotting sedge beyond the buntings. Mice have such brief lives, enacted very much at express pace, every movement made at lightening speed to evade their many predators.

The Reed Buntings were joined by Great Tits and Blue Tits, Dunnocks and Robins. all intent on picking up seeds. So still and quiet was it that you could plainly hear the brrrriing sound of the bird's wings as they flew down to feed on the scattered seed. 

Male Great Tit
The Reed Buntings descended in a bouncing, jerking flight, as if on elastic, dropping to the wet ground, flirting their white outer tail feathers and then hopping around on the mud and even wading into the water to pick at floating seeds. Their plumage, especially that of the females is perfectly synchronised with their environment to make them as inconspicuous as possible, all streaked browns and buffs of varying hues matching the dead vegetation and reed stalks around them.

Female Reed Buntings

The males were at varying stages of moulting into their breeding finery, some having almost fully completed their spring moult into black face and bib and natty white moustache and neck collar whilst others still had some way to go. One individual had me flummoxed as it looked like a  female but had some very dark brown almost black colouring on its cheeks, so was it a male in retarded moult or a very dark female? Surely a male would be in more advanced moult by now? This conundrum occupied  me for a little while as I watched and compared it with the other buntings but still, as my mind engaged with this diversion, there came no sign of a Water Rail.

Male Reed Buntings

There were never more than half a dozen Reed Buntings feeding on the mud and rotting vegetation at one time but there were certainly many more than just six individuals visiting here, so presumably a regular rotation of birds came and went dependent on the time of day. Sometimes the flock consisted of virtually all males and then at later times it was a preponderance of females. Some birds flew in from beyond the reserve, coming from the nearby River Thames and possibly further.

I noticed that some volunteer workers were clearing cut reeds over on the other side of the small reserve although you could hear nothing of their activities and this surely did not cause alarm to the Water Rails, even though they are so sensitive to noise and the slightest disturbance. I waited but apart from the constant flurries of Reed Buntings, as they periodically took alarm and fled up into the overhanging hazel bushes only to re-emerge in less than a minute to fly back down and resume feeding, there was still no sign of a Water Rail.

I sat and pondered, letting my eyes and senses drift in harmony with the somnolent atmosphere of the tiny reserve. Two Ravens, arguing raucously with each other flew across the leaden sky in front of me before disengaging and going their separate ways, whilst a Cetti's Warbler, another inveterate skulker of reed and sedge let fly its brief  song of cheery notes, a flare of exploding sound that died almost as soon as it was uttered and which, on this day of stillness and grey, seemed so incongruous. A lone Mute Swan, not quite an adult and which has found a temporary territory for itself on the reserve, floated on the exposed water beyond the sedge and reed margins before lazily swimming to pick at the dead reeds on the far side with its bill, the sound of breaking dead leaves coming quite clearly to me. Would this disturb the rails?

Forty five minutes passed and finally a small, slender, dark brown shape materialised from the dense ranks of sedge to my left. I never cease to get a thrill when a Water Rail appears. Exhileration, anticipation, excitement, anxiety, all heightening and energising my senses, hoping against everything that nothing will disturb the Water Rail or cause it to retreat. It hesitated, nervous, unsure and tense. its head, neck and body all extended in a manifestation of its innate shyness and wariness. A moment's pause, then satisfied all was as it should be the rail advanced and commenced picking at the seeds hidden in the cut vegetation and water.

Five minutes passed all too quickly and then it was gone, running down a gully of shallow water from some perceived threat of which I was unaware and into concealment in the tangles of sedge.

Five or six more minutes passed and then another rail came into view from the same direction as the first bird. Not quite so brightly plumaged as its predecessor it was even more nervous and ran across the open space and into cover as if fearing for its life, before re-emerging for a brief spell of feeding, but the exposure was all too much for it and it soon sought cover, where doubtless it felt secure. They never really come right into the open, always making sure they are on the periphery of cover or actually just inside it.

I looked down and found the first Water Rail was now right below the hide but it saw me looking and was gone in a flash of white undertail coverts, its small head turned sideways, looking anxiously back at me on a craning neck

Two more hours passed and apart from the occasional pig like squeal from a concealed Water Rail I saw nothing more of them.I contented myself with noting where the squeals came from, near or far, so I could at least hold out some hope that I might see another sooner rather than later. 

A grating squeal came from the marsh, left of the hide. It was near but the rail was invisible. Minutes passed and then those familiar sensations pulsed through my body as a dark brown shape moved in the tangle of vegetation before slowly emerging, only to stop motionless to check nothing was untoward.Then another little run to the next area of cover and another slow, timid emergence to the very edge of the sedge before commencing to pick at the spilt grain in the water.

Two minutes had barely elapsed when distant voices came from the Thames Path that runs behind and beyond the hide.Two people were passing by, invisible but very audible.The Water Rail's neck shot up, its body compressed as it stood on tiptoe, listened and then fled as fast as it could into the dense sedge, the whole episode over in seconds. So tense, so very nervy, so frustrating for me the watcher. 

Four hours had elapsed and I estimated I had seen two Water Rails for all of ten minutes and heard one other calling distantly from way over on the other side of the reserve, beyond the exposed water. 

It is not unique to see them as well as this but it certainly is not a common or regular occurrence and hopefully the two Water Rails will continue to provide close views for some time to come. It would be good if they breed and bring their young to this favourite area later in the year.

One can but hope.

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