Mixing it with moorhens
Mixing it with moorhens
A fellow WNS member observed a fascinating bit of bird behaviour on March 26th on the Wharfe. It starred a couple of moorhens – usually quiet, unobtrusive birds that scoot for cover when disturbed as they bob along the water or forage in adjacent fields. This is his account:
“Two birds were carrying their bodies almost erect and almost out of the water, held in that position by their wings fanned out on the water surface. They were fighting furiously with their feet that appeared to become interlocked at times. I cannot be certain of this (the fighting was so furious) but they appeared to be using their bills as well at times. They drifted away with the current still fighting.”
Such extreme aggression would not be surprising in the moorhens’ relative, the coot – that sooty black bird with the white forehead or frontal shield. Coots generally live in large groups and seem particularly noisy and irritable characters, charging across the water, head lowered menacingly to see off a fancied rival and frequently resorting to the kind of foot-sparring described above.
Moorhens, on the other hand, have always seemed to me to be rather peaceable characters. They have an interestingly cooperative family life: two females, perhaps, but not necessarily, related, may have the same mate and lay eggs in the same nest and share parental duties. However, it must also be said that females do lay eggs in other females’ nests and abandon all further responsibility for them. They also, apparently, can fight viciously – so not entirely gentle new-age characters after all!
With the race now on to gain and maintain a breeding territory, this must be a particularly stressful time for birds. My friend’s story reminded me of an occasion in May when I was walking in Middleton Woods. Ahead of me on the track I saw what I thought was a dead bluetit. As I got nearer I saw the pathetic heap of feathers was in fact two bluetits, not dead at all but with their claws apparently locked together in mortal combat. Horrified, I bleated – Oh, stop it! – whereupon the claws untangled and the two combatants flew off.
Meanwhile, other Wharfedale naturalists are monitoring the adder population on our local moorland. Adders hibernate communally and, given a sunny day, are out and about, warming up and preparing to mate. This can be as early as February. One of our experts told me that, on the last day of March near a hibernation site in upper Washburn, he counted five together – two larger, greeny-brown females, two handsome bluey-grey males and one smaller individual only about 18 inches long and of a reddish brown colour, indicating that it was a juvenile born last year. After mating the adders will disperse over the adjoining moorland, but you may be lucky enough to catch sight of one basking in the sunshine on a rock or clearing in the vegetation. Keep your distance – remember, these are shy creatures.