A much sought after bird by birdwatchers, the Water Rail is probably more common than casual sightings suggest. In spring they are likely to be heard in their habitat making noises described as ‘like a pig squealing’ or as though ‘someone has trod on its toe’! Their calls are most often uttered at dawn and at dusk but they do call during the day and in the right place and at the right time you may hear one.
The Water Rail lurks in marshes and reedbeds, nothing is too dense for them and they are most likely to be seen when water is iced over and they leave the safety of the dense vegetation and venture out on to the ice. Water Rails live and breed in the Valley but are rarely recorded, however the best place to see Water Rail by Mark Elvin www.wildlife-galleries.co.uk
them is to wait in a hide at
Moor Green Lakes Nature Reserve and hope to see them venturing out in the half-light, sometimes at the right-hand side of Colebrook hide. To use the hides at Moor Green you need to join the local group, which is inexpensive. Another place where the Water Rail has been found in the Valley recently is at Frimley gravel pits but here the birds are less accessible.
Water Rails tend to be sedentary, in other words they tend not to migrate so they stay in roughly the same locations throughout the year. Having said this they are capable of migrating and some ringing recoveries have shown birds fly to the UK in winter to swell the numbers, from central and north-western Europe. Little is known about the species because it is so secretive and this makes ringing difficult, which is the main source of information on migration and movements.
Breeding starts at the end of March and most nests are built on ground close to water and made from dead leaves and stems of plants. Often surrounding and overhanging vegetation is pulled down around the nest to form a loose canopy, adding to the secretive image of the bird. They are monogamous for each breeding season so each year they may find a new breeding partner and lay their 6-11 eggs which they incubate for 20-30 days.
There is something strangely attractive about the Water Rail, its plumage is quite striking in an understated way, the most obvious markings being the red bill and black and white flanks. When they fly they look slightly like a Moorhen although much smaller and slighter, plus they have distinctly trailing legs usually dropping quickly back into the marsh from which they came.
When approaches, our eyes and ears need to be alert for singing birds arriving in the Valley and if you think hear a pig squeal, you almost certainly have heard a Water Rail instead!
Berkshire Ornithological Club