Tuesday 2 April 2019

The Water Rails of Farmoor 31st March 2019

I am fortunate that at Farmoor Reservoir, which is near to my home in Oxfordshire, it's  comparatively easy to see one, sometimes two Water Rails, provided you have the patience and time.

From a hide you can look out to some bird feeders close by, situated on the edge of marshy surrounds and watch the Water Rails take advantage of any seed and peanuts which fall into the water and mud below as the tits and reed buntings messily extract the food from the feeders.

Today was Sunday morning, Mothers Day, so it was quiet which is an absolute pre-requisite if you wish to see these birds. Excited children, people speaking in loud voices, even the odd bang as someone opens a viewing slat too fiercely or drops something in the hide can all act as a deterrent to any Water Rail showing itself. Water Rails, as with all rails and crakes are notoriously nervous and the phrase 'scared of their own shadow' is never more apposite than when watching these highly strung birds.

Sometimes you can be lucky and see a Water Rail almost immediately on entering the hide, at other times and more usually you have to wait, sitting silent and still. I have sometimes lingered for up to two hours before I get to see one, in the meantime hearing only the odd pig like squeal and grunt from a Water Rail hidden in its watery fastness of sedge and reed. Today I was relatively lucky in that I had to wait for only forty five minutes before the star bird put in an appearance.

The marsh comes right up to the feeders which are hung from a pole in a tiny area of waterlogged and flattened reed stems and stalks, the close proximity of the marsh vegetation allowing the Water Rails to approach under cover. There are mysterious dark recesses at water level in the sedge and reeds and it is usually from one of these that a Water Rail will emerge.You find yourself looking endlessly at these recesses and then finally the darkness takes on an added density as, almost imperceptibly, the upper body of a Water Rail, similarly dark brown, morphs magically into a reality within the recess. Then you see the bright red on its lower mandible as it pokes its head and long bill enquiringly and hesitantly outwards, to check all is clear and there is no threat to it.

Edgily it emerges almost into the open.To the Water Rail such an exposed position must be anathema but the lure of an easy meal is just too much to resist. On slightly flexed legs, in a furtive half crouch, it moves further out, just a few feet, its long toes, looking almost prehensile as they embrace the broken reed stems it treads, emboldened by the silence and the presence of the birds on the feeders above. It pecks up the fallen seed but regularly reverts to a statuesque alertness to check that nothing is untoward. With head raised on extended neck it listens, primed to flee, alarmed by something of which I am unaware. A few seconds later it relaxes.All is well in its world.

A Reed Bunting flashes close by, the Water Rail flinches and in an instant runs for cover. Minutes pass and then it slowly emerges from cover once again, tail flicking in anxiety, its movements jerky and forever tentative. On differing occasions two ladies walking and talking loudly on the pathway nearby, then a Grey Squirrel, then three Mallard drakes also attracted by the  falling seed, all cause it such alarm that away it runs into the security of the sedge. More minutes pass and it re-emerges once more, never venturing far from its true home the dark damp sanctity of the all encompassing sedge and reeds.

The innate nervousness of the Water Rail imbues to me, the watcher, a similar tension and I recognise how on edge I am too, willing the Water Rail to remain for just a few more minutes, fearing that any untoward disturbance however innocuous, will upset and send it scuttling at speed back into cover.

I always feel a sense of achievement when I see the Water Rails here. It is true I rarely fail to encounter one nor do others who come to see them but to observe a creature so shy feels like a triumph no matter what.

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