On Thursday, at long last, I saw and got photos of my bogey bird – not great photos, because it didn’t stop still for a single moment and was mostly obscured as it poked and prodded its way along the shrubby water’s edge at Cardiff Bay Wetlands Reserve – but I’m still absolutely delighted to have seen the bird.
Though I’ve heard these birds in various locations, I’ve only ever seen a Water rail (Rallus aquaticus) once previously, at Forest Farm Nature Reserve, back in February 2016. At the time, I didn’t realise how lucky I was to have good views of it as it did a circuit of the pond in front of one of the hides. Now I know better.
My failure to see a Water rail during the intervening 2 years 9 months was not simply down to bad luck or bad field craft. These are notoriously secretive birds, seemingly relishing concealment and a quiet life in the very thickest of wetland vegetation, though quiet they are not.
Various adjectives have been used to describe their call: squealing, grunting, snorting, piglet-like. (You can listen for yourself here.) Though it was constantly chattering away to itself, this particular Water rail made none of those more raucous sounds: its one-sided conversation was more of a sharp-voiced running commentary on the chilliness of the weather, the lack of insects, the number of pesky mallards.
This Water rail was smaller than I remembered, about half the size of the more numerous and extrovert Moorhen, and, to my eye, it was much more handsome. Its head, chest and underbelly have the rich blues of the Moorhen but its brown-and-black back is mallard-like, and it has a lovely blue-and-white stripey area on each flank. The cheeky white bobbing under-tail is the same as its bigger cousin though.