(1) Water Rail
The loss of a bird, no matter in what way it happened is sad. Unfortunately it is all too frequently an occurrence. It may be a swan hitting power lines, a robin being caught by a cat, a blackbird being run over by a car, a bird of prey that is getting so slow that it can't catch it's food and so dies of starvation, and any bird that suffers from hypothermia. But when it is a small bird that you have been trying to see and photograph for years then it is extra sad.
This is all about a bird called a Water Rail, which frequented one of our lochs for a long time. I first heard it many years ago, but as they are very secretive, I never caught sight of it, although it was not for the want of trying. Many hours I passed listening to its call as it searched for a mate but didn't search in my direction. I could not go and look for it as it lives in dense reeds and would hide until I went away, patience is the only way.
This bird is laterally compressed, (very slim) for easy passage through these dense reeds, in fact it is that slim that it can move about without touching them and giving away its position to predators. I waited and waited, and then two years ago I got a quick glimpse of it as it moved through a small clearing. That was all I got until a few months ago when most of the loch was frozen, it broke cover looking for unfrozen ground and water so that it could feed and drink.
There it was right in front of me and me with a camera in my hand, then in an instant it was gone as a pair of red breasted mergansers landed near it making it disappear. But it came out once more and continued to look for food. I got several photos but as it was a very dull and wet day, they were not too great, but good enough for identification purposes. I was delighted that I had finally got it, but I returned again and again to get an even better one.
Then within a week I got word that it had been caught and killed by a cat. You can understand that at that point my love of cats had taken a huge dent. But! Cats do this kind of thing even if they are well fed. The cat's owner when seeing what was taking place tried to get the bird, which was still alive at that time, away from it, to no avail. The cat was too quick and fly, and by the time that he had caught up with it, the poor bird was dead.
But it was in good condition if it was required for stuffing or dry freezing. I went to the museum and told Ivor Gibbs, the Custodian what had happened, and that I had the bird in my freezer. He was sad that it was gone but pleased that I had kept it as they haven't one of these species in their displays and would like to have it. So it was now in the hands of Elizabeth Doig the Curator of Natural History, to see the Museum's Trustee's to decide whether to finance the cost of preparing the bird for display.
This decision soon came, and it is off to Cramond near Edinburgh this week for this work to be done, so some time in the not too distant future you should see it on display in the museum along with the vast displays of other birds that are really worth seeing. And at the present time very old stuffed birds that have lost their colour are being replaced with new ones when the opportunity arises, so keep going back to see if any new exhibits have arrived. As some of my reference books are quite old, it is impossible to give an accurate British population of this species, but my newest one gives an estimate of between two and four thousand pairs making them very scarce indeed.
They are very small birds, 27-29cm (10-11ins, about the size of a blackbird, very long legs and toes that trail when it takes flight. Colouring.- Above, brown and black, throat and breast grey, flanks and belly black and white barred, a short cocked tail which it flicks showing white under tail feathers and a very long red bill and red eye. Its legs can be pinkish or greenish. It wades, and takes off and lands on water or ground, which is amazing as they have not got webbed feet, but as they normally move amongst the reeds, they don't need to swim very often. At times of danger they keep very still using their colouring to their advantage, and only taking flight as a last resort. As it lives on marshes, it eats what it can find, berries seeds insects, also eggs, small mammals and any carrion that it may come across.
As they are normally very secretive their call is the best way of recognition. They can sound like pigs squealing; they also grunt, whistle, squeak and hiss. (It doesn't get any easier does it?) I don't know if the one that I have is the one that I have been hearing for years as there can be an influx of migratory ones during the winter from the continent. So it may be a visitor. In flight with their long legs trailing they look uncomfortable but, are quite capable of long distance journeys.
As the photo that I took is not very good quality, I am using one from one of my books to let you see the bird in my story. The next one that you see will be one taken in the Museum, when it is put on display, and I hope that you will go and see it, and while you are there spend a bit of time looking at Bute's past in the many exhibits that are there . Also, you will see many of the other birds that I have written about in the past, and also many more that I hope to write about in the future
First Published in the Buteman 05-04-2003
01-08-2003. Now in the Museum.
29-01-2013 A photo of a photo