Photo: Jeremy Halls
At first glance, the colder months may not seem to be teeming with life, but winter and early spring is one of the best times to see birds on and around our waterways. And while the change in seasons sees some familiar faces leave for warmer climes, it also brings large numbers of migrant species to our shores, attracted by our relatively mild climate.
It is also a time when year-round residents are drawn into new territory by dropping temperatures. One such is the water rail, a common ground living bird that’s related to the coot and crake. Naturally reclusive, water rails are easier to spot during the winter months when colder conditions force the birds into open ground to feed. Chances are you’ll hear this shy bird before you see it. Its call, which is usually heard as it skulks through thick foliage at the edge of the water, sounds like a series of grunts followed by a sharp almost pig-like squeal, known as ‘sharming’.
Often only glimpsed briefly as it ducks and darts between cover, the water rail is slightly smaller than a moorhen and has a slender body, allowing it to slip through reedbeds easily. Adult birds have a distinctive long red bill, chestnut brown and black markings along their back, and a slate grey face and underbody. Often confused with types of crake, especially the spotted crake, the water rail’s most unique marking is the black and white barring that runs along their flanks.
Weston Turville Reservoir, near Aylesbury, is a good place to observe water rail. A mix of marshy fen and reedbeds, it makes an ideal habitat for the birds and it’s their only breeding ground in Buckinghamshire. Constructed in 1797 to provide water to the Wendover arm of the Grand Union Canal, the 19-hectare site teems with more than 40 species of overwintering birds.
Park in the layby on World’s End Lane and keep an eye out for teal, shovellers and tufted ducks as you walk around the 1.2-mile perimeter path. Don’t forget to wear sensible shoes as the path can be muddy and pack a flask of something warm so you can spend time in one of the two hides, listening out for the water rail’s call.
Plan your visit to with our online guide.