Monday 12 November 2018

Farmoor Water Rails 11th November 2018

I am fortunate in that I know of a place near to my home where I can be reasonably guaranteed to see Water Rails, close up and often viewable for extended periods. Water Rails are notorious skulkers and normally afford only the briefest of views, for when discovered they usually scuttle or flutter in a weak and panicked flight into the dense riparian cover they so love to conceal themselves in.

Not so at Farmoor, however, as at Thames Water's tiny Pinkhill Reserve, some bird feeders placed near the hide at the edge of some marshy ground have been discovered by the Water Rails that live on the reserve. By discover I mean the Water Rails have taken advantage of the seed that spills from the feeders as the other birds, mainly tits, messily feed from them, the fallen seed ending up in the wet sedge and water below the feeders and thus providing a constant and handy meal for the essentially terrestrial Water Rails.

It has become an annual rite of passage for me to go and see the Water Rails and I usually manage at least a couple of visits each winter and I am rarely unsuccessful. Today I timed my visit for first thing on a Sunday morning,  reasoning there would be little chance of disturbance from anyone else at such an early hour. Water Rails do not take kindly to noise or movement of any sort. 

Leaving the house at 6.30am I found it was very wet underfoot, having rained hard during most of the night, and the rural lanes around my home were made treacherous by the wet  fallen leaves and vast puddles of rain covering parts of the unlit narrow lanes.

It was light by the time I got to Farmoor and opening the door of the hide I found, as expected, that I had the place to myself. I settled on a hard bench by the open viewing window and looked out to the feeders and awaited developments. Two hours later I was still waiting. That is how it goes with the enigmatic Water Rails here. Sometimes you can be lucky and they appear almost immediately or are already under the feeders when you arrive but at other times they are elusive and can remain invisible for long periods.

I looked out beyond the banks of reeds, now withered and turned  to a pale coffee brown,  their tasselled heads bending gently with the wind, to a vista of infinite gold, the leaves of the many surrounding willows and hawthorns having turned from green to varying shades of yellow. Each gust of wind spiralled expired leaves from bough to earth and sent ripples across the pools of water lying amongst the rain sodden sedge

There was plenty of bird activity to keep me amused in the absence of a Water Rail. Great and Blue Tits were constant visitors to the feeders and Reed Buntings, less inclined to be acrobats on the feeders, picked up seed from the wet ground below, their cryptic plumage blending to perfection with the dead vegetation. 

Blue Tit

Great Tit

Female Reed Bunting

Male Reed Buntings
They were joined by Dunnocks and Chaffinches, even a Robin. Fifteen Fieldfares, disturbed from feeding on some hawthorn berries they had found by the nearby Thames towpath, chackered in alarm and fled in a loose aggregation, spreading themselves across a sky just beginning to show the first rays of welcome sunshine. A pair of Mallard swam furtively through the sedge to dabble in the water under the feeders, finding the discarded seed that had sunk to the bottom.


A Field Vole pinballed itself at manic speed across the wet sedge to find sanctuary below a matt of dead vegetation whilst a Cetti's Warbler, forever invisible, proclaimed its presence with intermittent loud bursts of song as it progressed around the reserve.

No one, apart from a brief visit from Dai (Mr Farmoor) came to disturb my vigil and I  sat in quiet contemplation, listening to some distant church bells on this Remembrance Sunday, with thoughts of my grandfather, who fought in the Great War with the Seaforth Highlanders at Ypres and was grievously wounded  but was one of the lucky ones to  ultimately survive that madness and lived well into his eighties.

Feeling cold and a little dispirited at the end of a second fruitless hour, I looked down to check my phone for emails and messages and on looking back up and out, there, where formerly had been just a dark recess in the sedge, now stood a plump, dark brown and grey bird with a long red bill, its outline merging with the dead sedge. It was nigh on invisible but moved and came further out from  its concealment. A Water Rail at last.

I like to lull myself into thinking it is relaxing to sit in the hide and watch the Water Rails but if anything it is entirely the opposite. They are birds of such nervous disposition that they flee for cover at a second's notice and for no discernible reason and often it can take hours for them to re-emerge. Consequently, when one appears, you find yourself also entering into a state of anxiety and nervous tension, especially after a long wait such as this morning, hoping the Water Rail will feel secure enough to remain in view and not take fright. 

This particular Water Rail was even more nervous than previous ones I have observed here. Just about any innocuous change of circumstance caused it mild panic. Unexpected gusts of wind, suddenly falling leaves, distant voices and even tits swooping down to the feeders, all put it so much on edge that it would scurry back into the embrace of the dark and dense sedge. After a few minutes it would tentatively re-emerge and then stand motionless with neck extended, head raised and cocked tail flicking  for what seemed an age, half in half out of cover, until finally it found the courage to proceed further into the open to feed on the fallen seed.

For the next hour I watched it, on and off, as it hesitantly ventured out from cover or retreated in a panic of fluttering wings and long legs, back into the cover of the sedge. They are attractive birds, the underparts grey, barred black and white on the very rear of the flanks, grey on the head too, the grey feathering appearing almost blue in some lights whilst the upperparts are rich  olive brown, densely streaked with black. At this time of year their plumage, after the annual moult, is immaculate with hardly a feather out of place.

I watched the Water Rail delicately picking seeds from the water with its long red bill, progressing with a high stepping gait on long thin toes, its body curiously laterally flattened to facilitate moving through the tight packed reed stems and vegetation that it inhabits, and its head, when viewed face on, seems disproportionately small in relation to its body. A short cocked tail, spasmodically jerked upwards  added to the impression of one very highly strung bird.

A Grey Squirrel came down from a hawthorn to feed on the seed and this caused the Water Rail some concern. So much so it retreated into the edge of cover. More in hope than expectation I hissed loudly through the viewing window at the squirrel which, alarmed by the sound, disappeared back up the tree whereupon the Water Rail, on cue at the squirrel's departure, re-emerged from its hiding place. This scene repeated itself on a number of occasions with the Water Rail slipping away at each re-appearance of the persistent squirrel, me then hissing at the squirrel which promptly departed  and the Water Rail then re-emerging once more. Strangely my hissing only seemed to upset the squirrel and not the Water Rail.

After sitting still for so long I was beginning to feel the cold as the wind had increased and was blowing directly into the hide through the open window. The Water Rail had, as it had done countless times before, slipped into cover at a perceived danger known only to itself  but, unlike the times before did not re-emerge. I had been here for four hours and considered that it was probably time to go.

I left the hide and took the track alongside the river back to the road and my parked car.

Undoubtedly I will come back on another day to further enjoy watching the Water Rails of Farmoor.

I also take much pleasure in finding out the local and folk names for our native birds. It is part of the rich history and culture of birding in Great Britain and I like the variety of names that have been given to birds over the years and that acts almost as a counterbalance to the relentless  trend for uniformity in current bird nomenclature. Variety and individuality is the spice of life, and birding!

Here are some of the former names given to the Water Rail from various parts of Britain and Ireland.

Bilcock; Rat-bird; Rat-hen -Yorkshire

Brook ouzel; Brook-runner; Brown hen; Darcock; Grey skit - Devon

Greyhen; Gutter-cock; Skitty cock; Skitty coot - Cornwall

Jack-runner - Gloucestershire

Oar-cock - Suffolk

Velvet runner; War cock - Ireland

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