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 Water Rail - Fact File
Water Rail
Rallus aquaticus
Widely but locally distributed resident, with continental birds increasing the population in winter.
Marshes, swamps, bogs and reedy lake margins

Small, slim, attractively marked rail, with long curved red bill. Shy and secretive and easily overlooked. Has strange, loud squealing calls.

25cm (10")

Water Rail

The cacophony of highly unbirdlike noises from reedbeds in winter indicates the presence of ever secretive water rails. These distinctive calls, most often heard at dawn and dusk, are a mixture of squeals, grunts and groaning screams likened to the cries of an animal in mortal agony.

Favouring reedbeds and over-grown dykes where no tangle of vegetation is too dense, water rails prefer to escape danger by using long powerful legs rather than short rounded wings. Flight appears weak with legs limply dangling. This impression is false for it undertakes lengthy journeys.

During the course of its migratory flights the water rail seems prone to collisions with overhead wires and North Sea rig platforms suggesting that even though its rapidly beating wings can carry it for long distances it is not really suited to high flight. Yet ringing recoveries confirm many water rails move into this country for the winter from the Netherlands, Belgium and southern Scandinavia. Others summer in northern and central Europe even cross such mountain systems as the Alps.

Old-time collectors/naturalists described water rails as often abundant in autumn in the Yare Valley especially in the vicinity of Rockland Broad. Here the unfortunate birds 'afforded ample sport' with as many as 22 being obtained by a single gunner within a few hours. Today, this area of Broadland still attracts these shy birds.

Dangerous times for water rails are the calm days of penetrating frost following heavy snowfall. Then, and only then, the birds are forced to seek a spot where springs keep the water unfrozen. Disturbed at such times they rise weakly, legs dangling, to flutter into close cover.

They have become mere feathered skeletons that in a few more days will be unable to make even that effort. One Arctic winter over 20 water rails into Norfolk in both December and January when exhausted individuals have more than once been found on Blakeney Point.

If these arrivals coincide with severe conditions locally they are forced to take up residence in tidal gutters on the saltings. Here the normally wary migrants wade and swim with jaunty jerks of the tail reminding one of an oversize wren with a long red bill. On one occasion 11 rails were recovered on the tidelines between Blakeney and Morston. And at Wells three starving birds attacked weakened knot and dunlin.

Lord William Percy lived in Broadland for many years and became an authority on the retiring water rail. He described Catfield as 'an area which perhaps contains the densest water rail population in the country'. He almost felt under an obligation to 'attempt some close acquaintance with so elusive a creature'.

Despite a long-term study within an area of over 100 acres where nine or 10 rail nests were known each spring, many puzzles remained. Perhaps 60 young birds were hatched annually. Yet no increase in breeding numbers was ever noted. Many succumbed, no doubt, in prolonged frosts.

They are soon reduced to starvation, but such frosts do not occur in the area sufficiently often to account for a comparatively low population. Lord William concluded that the water rails themselves control their numbers. He stressed the vigour of the fights he had witnessed between them and considered that the territory claimed by each breeding pair was so considerable that that alone prevented almost any increase.

One charming scene was the habit of carrying young, which was described by Emma Turner at Hickling and Anthony Buxton at Horsey.

Lord William notes one family party of water rails: the parents marching alongside black downy young, head held high and both with a youngster dangling from the tip of their bills.

Water rails are almost oblivious to spells of rough weather 'for at ground level in a reedbed they are snug in almost still air while a roaring gale is driving feathered reedheads into the likeness of an angry sea.'

By Michael J. Seago

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Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.