Found at freshwater wetlands, water rails are elusive birds, inhabiting reeds and rushes at the fringes of lakes and ponds. Slightly smaller than the related moorhen and coot, Water Rails are resident in the UK all year round, and numbers increase with the arrival of migrating birds each autumn.
Male water rails have chestnut-brown and black upperparts, with a grey face and underparts. Their flanks are barred with black and white. Their bill is long, straight and red, and their legs are flesh coloured, but can appear brighter red in some subspecies. Their white undertail provides a useful way of identifying the species.
Females are similar in colouring and plumage to males, but are smaller and have a shorter bill.
Juveniles are duller in appearance, with the grey face and underparts seen in mature birds replaced with more of a buff-pale brown until their adult plumage develops.
Water Rail walking in natural habitat
Water rails are relatively small members of the rail and crake family, which makes them quite difficult to spot, particularly when they are among the reeds and waterside vegetation in summer months.
Females are slightly smaller and lighter than males, with the measurement ranges for the species as follows:
Water Rail amongst the reeds
A water rail’s call is known as ‘sharming’ and is a series of low-pitched grunts followed by a higher pitched squeal, which is followed by a series of further guttural grunts.
This vocalisation is used as an alarm call, as well as to assert a territorial claim. A sharp whistle can be heard in flight.
Water Rail calling out
Water rails are omnivores and their diet varies seasonally: in autumn and winter, they tend to eat more plant matter, including shoots, roots, seeds, berries and fruit. They climb into the vegetation to take berries or fly into the branches and remove the fruit.
Earlier in the year, their diet is more animal-based, when they eat mostly small vertebrates including amphibians, fish, mammals and even other birds. Invertebrate prey includes worms, leeches, crayfish, shrimps, spiders, and other aquatic creatures.
Young water rails are fed in the nest until they begin to independently forage for their own prey from around 5 days. Early diet includes larvae, worms, and small insects.
Water Rail searching for food
Water rails thrive in waterside locations, including alongside rivers, lakes and canals, as well as marshes, swamps and muddy wetlands.
Winter habitats include flooded gravel pits and scrubland, ditches, and even landfill sites.
Water rails are year-round residents in much of western Europe from the British Isles in the west and France, Spain, Italy, Greece and along the north African coast in the south.
Into eastern Europe, eastwards from eastern Germany, they are temporary residents during the breeding season only, with this seasonal range extending across Central Asia into Siberian Russia,
Due to their secretive nature and well-camouflaged plumage, gaining accurate population data on the number of water rails in different countries across their range is particularly difficult.
Populations in Iceland, Britain and France are considered stable.
Water Rail heading down to the swamp
It’s estimated that there are more than 3,900 water rail pairs breeding in the UK, so although not the most common waterbird, they are not especially rare.
However, they are famously hard to spot, blending into their habitats so they remain undetected by predators, which makes catching sight of one particularly tricky, especially in summer when vegetation is at its most dense.
Water rails are widely distributed throughout England, Wales and Ireland, but less so in Scotland, with only a patchy presence in some lowland and coastal regions. In winter, numbers increase with the arrival of migrants from Russia and Eastern Europe.
Close up of a Water Rail
The average lifespan for a water rail is around 6 years, but older individuals have been recorded, including one that reached 8 years and 9 months. Breeding takes place for the first time at one year of age.
Water Rail walking on a frozen pond
The Wildlife and Countryside Act, of 1981, protects water rails from being deliberately killed, injured or caught and kept in captivity.
Although habitat loss, including destruction and reclamation of wetland areas, is a threat to the nesting sites of water rails, they are classed as a green status species on the British Birds of Conservation Concern list and are considered to be a species of least concern across their global range.
Water Rail preening itself
Nests are constructed on or near water, concealed by vegetation, with a cup made from dead leaves and plant stems, built by both the male and female together.
Any nearby reeds or rushes may be pulled to form a loose canopy above the nest itself, in an attempt to provide an extra layer of protection and privacy.
Water rails have an extended breeding season, lasting from March until August, during which two broods are usually raised.
A typical water rail clutch consists of between 6 and 11 eggs, which are smooth and glossy and off-white to pinkish-buff in colour, and marked with reddish blotches.
Eggs measure 36 mm × 26 mm (1.4 in × 1.0 in) and are incubated by both parents in turn, with the female taking the larger share of brooding duties.
Hatching occurs after 19 to 22 days.
Water rails are seasonally monogamous, forming pairs early in the year and raising two broods together. Pair bonds do not normally last beyond the end of the breeding season.
Adult Water Rail searching for food with its young
During the breeding season, water rails become highly territorial and protective of their mate, nest site, eggs and young and may attack any intruders.
Water Rail perched on a piece of floating wood
Water rails are a partially migratory species, with many birds in the western parts of their range being year-round residents.
The further east they breed, the more likely that they will need to migrate to warmer regions when winter approaches.
In Europe, most populations breeding to the east of eastern Germany and Poland are only temporary residents and migrate south and west when local weather conditions become too harsh and lakes begin to freeze over.
Water rails are present in the UK all year round, and around 3,900 pairs breed in the British Isles.
Some migration within the UK occurs, with water rails breeding in the Scottish Highlands moving to more hospitable environments during winter months. The UK’s resident water rails are joined in winter by overseas migrants, particularly in southern and western parts of the country.
Water Rail running along the shallow waters of a lake
Water rails can fly, as well as being able to run quite fast on the shores of lakes and wetlands.
Some water rails migrate over considerable distances to reach warmer wintering grounds when their breeding territories become too cold to survive in.
Family:Rails, crakes and coots
23cm to 28cm
38cm to 45cm
80g to 180g
Western swamphens are also sometimes known as purple western swamphens or purple gallinules (not to be confused with the American purple gallinule, native to North America). A relative of the moorhen, the species was first confirmed in the UK in 2016, and added to the British Birds list the following year. Sightings remain extremely rare and unusual.
Often confused for the similar wetland inhabitant the water rail, spotted crakes are rare visitors to the UK, and are notoriously hard to spot as they prefer to remain hidden within densely vegetated marshes and sedge beds.
The Moorhen is a common and colourful waterbird, found everywhere from city ponds to countryside wetlands.
A member of the family of coots, crakes and rails, the corncrake is unique in that it lives on dry land and prefers hayfields and dense cover as opposed to waterside habitats.
The Eurasian coot is sometimes mistaken for a duck but is in fact a wading bird with splayed toes as opposed to webbed feet. When foraging for food under the water ducks will eat their food whilst still submerged whereas coots will surface first and then eat. There are four sub-species of the Eurasian coot and eleven separate coot species.
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