Crakes and Rails (06/13)

A family well represented at Clayhanger and one which can pose serious challenges for the serious lister. I have also included a posting relating to the American Moorhen (Common Gallinule) in the hope that it might provide a useful reference to someone in future)

Water Rail - Rallus aquaticus

Of all the species that are regularly recorded at Clayhanger, this must be the most elusive. Frequently heard squealing from the reeds but rarely seen. But just to be contrary,when it does show itself, the Water Rail can be exceptionally confiding. A bird of contradictions to be sure.

Water Rail do breed at Clayhanger and on occasion I and several other birders have sat at dusk and watched both adults and young out together on the exposed mud. It does not necessarily occur every year though and I suspect breeding frequency may be effected by water levels.

Between 1995 and 2013 saw a total of nine Water Rail on fifteen occasions (including multiples) and heard them on twenty-five occasions (including multiples where birds have answered each other). I have subsequently heard them calling but given the number of visits I have paid to the marsh over the years (Lots!), it should give you some indication of your chances of seeing or hearing one when you visit. If you manage it you will have done well!

Spotted Crake - Porzana porzana

A semi-rarity that passes through the region in small numbers each spring and autumn. Spotted Crake may have occurred on many occasions but I have encountered it only twice. Graham Evans has indicated that a specimen was reported on an unspecified date in the early 1980s but my first encounter involved the diagnostic 'whiplash' call coming repeatedly from dense cover on the evening of 02/09/1995 (at at time when there was a strong movement of the species through Britain). My second record was another calling bird late on the night of 19/05/1997.

Frustratingly, I had brief views of a Crake species on the morning of 15/09/2007 that was quite probably a Spotted. The bird was seen in flight for a couple of seconds before going into deep cover. It was quite dark above and seemed to be no bigger than a Kingfisher! Unfortunately, despite a patient vigil, the bird was not seen again and the possibility of it being a rarer species could not be eliminated so I will have to let that one go. There were no further records until 2011 when a surprise male was calling and seen briefly as it passed across the gap from one stand of rushes to another on 07/08/11. Despite a good number of birders subsequently attending it was not see again.

The next Spotted Crake was a spring bird seen on 09/05/2013 (G.C.) where it was pursued into cover by a Water Rail across the path at Pelsall Road Pools.

[Corncrake - Crex crex]

For a number of years I was a regular on the local slide-show circuit, giving illustrated lectures on midland wildlife. Given my limited number of slides, it was always a challenge to juggle the performance so that those who attended were kept entertained and on one occasion I included a slide of a Corncrake and used this to illustrate how birds that are common and taken for granted can go into decline (Believe it or not, I hadn't got a slide of a Passenger Pigeon!).

At the tea break it is usual for people to seek you out in order to ask questions or share their wildlife experiences and on this occasion a couple came up to me and assured me that they had occasionally heard Corncrake calling in the Pelsall and Clayhanger area in their childhood.

They backed each other up and were very sincere and as far as I know, absolutely right so I have respected this record, albeit in square brackets. It would be interesting to find out if the West Midland Bird Club have any information on the local status of Corncrake in the 1920s and 1930s and see if this anecdotal record has real merit?

Moorhen - Gallinula chloropus

Common, resident and guaranteed to be seen at both sites unless they are frozen over. If you can't identify this one, I suggest you log off and go for a walk along the canal or around a park lake! (See article below).

Common Coot - Fulica atra

Another one that you should know but more likely to be seen on the mere than on the marsh, often in quite significant numbers. Sit and watch one in silhouette and note the thrusting head movements and distinctive shape (go on, we all have to do it sometime and it will be useful).

If you wonder how you can age Coot, you either need to look at the upper tarsus (the bit of leg that's up in the feathers) to see if its green-toned or check if the eyes are red or brown (serious anorak stuff eh?).

Identification of American Moorhen

This one is just for the serious birders!

The Moorhen - you have seen loads of these... or have you?
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OK, this isn't a news update as such, just something I wanted to share. Some of you will know all about this but I didn't.

My old mate John Holian and his good lady Sharon were off in Norfolk recently and finished their visit with a trip to Lincolnshire where an American Black Tern was present. Now A.B.T. is what serious birders call 'An insurance Tick'. This is a bird that is currently regarded as a sub-species but for which their is significant evidence that it should actually be treated as a separate species in its own right. This decision is sometimes made based on persistent differences in plumage or call or more often these days, in a scientific analysis of their mitrocondrial or their nuclear D.N.A. and American Black Tern is a strong contender for 'Splitting' on both of these grounds.

John's experience reminded me of something I have been meaning to do for some time and today I got on with it. Many serious birders including David Sibley (he of the amazing and indispensable American Field Guide) have contended that the American and European sub-species of Common Moorhen (or Common Gallinule if you live on the other side of the pond) could be separated in the field. As I dropped out of serious 'twitching' five or six years ago this has mostly gone below my radar and I felt that I needed to catch up.

To appreciate the differences you first need to spend a bit more time looking at our local Moorhens and familiarise yourself with the 'measuring stick'. Once this is done the identification of a Yankee bird seems reasonably straightforward.

The main feature is the Shield above the bill which is curved or slightly flattened at the top on our birds, but which appears broader and is sometimes notched in the middle on the North American ones. There is apparently more red on the lower mandible of the bill and the upper tarsus (the bit of the leg hidden in feathers that you cant usually see!) is much redder (so all you have to do is catch one, turn it upside down and have a good ferret about - simples!).

Some sources say that the eye colour of American birds is darker, more maroon or reddy-brown than bright red but there seems to be some doubt about this as eye-colour can apparently be effected by hormone levels at different times of the year (although I know from experience that eye colour is a firm feature when ageing young Coots?)

However there is another good indicator which is reliable, the yellow on the upper and lower bill form a distinct wedge shape different from the normally diagonal line on our birds..wait a minute... that picture I took, its...actually from the Birds of Oklahoma Website (if you find one that looks like this PLEASE call me) so yes, the bird at the top of this posting IS a Common Gallinule (or North American Moorhen) it was the very best photo I could find that illustrated the features that we as birders are most likely to pick up when finding one of these.

For the Lister's amongst you I believe that the splitting of this subspecies will have occurred by the end of this year so those of you who have been to the states can credit yourself with an 'Armchair Tick' (Don't ask!). As for us poor plebs who just wonder around our local patches in all weathers, the Moorhens might just deserve a bit more attention from now on don't you think? - Chaz

P.S. By the way - as far as I know there has not been an accepted British Record of Common Gallinule yet, so I am not expecting to be bombarded with e-mails saying you have found one..unless of course,... you have?