The start of the New Year finds me in retrospective mode – collecting together my last year’s garden-bird records to send off to the British Trust for Ornithology. The final quarter of 2011 looked rather thin – just the usual blackbirds, blue tits and robins. Even the numbers of finches were much reduced – partly, alas, due to the avian pox spreading through the population, partly because warmer weather and an abundance of wild food has made bird feeders less vital for survival. However, the day before New Year’s Eve as we were eating our breakfast, we spotted a small bird exploring the tangled net of honeysuckle stems along the garden fence. Smaller than a blue tit, less flittery and paler than a dunnock, with a thin bill and olive-tinged breast – a puzzle. Eventually I decided it must be a chiffchaff. This small warbler has recently followed the example of the more robust blackcap in chancing our winter instead of migrating to Africa. One to look out for this winter.
It was good to have something unusual to wind up my list, but my sister in NW Scotland certainly trumped my ace this year. Wet, murky late afternoon, and she was looking out at her sodden garden and a stormy Loch Fyne when a slim, long-legged bird of indeterminate colour emerged from some bushes, picked its way through the marshy area near the pond and disappeared again. Just a few moments and not much to go on – except a tail fan of stiff white feathers. After searching through several reference books she concluded that it was a juvenile moorhen. Then, a few days later, the visitor returned, this time in better light and for several minutes. Its long reddish bill and much slenderer build made identification easy – a water rail!
I have only ever seen water rails in Reserves, where reed-beds and specialy made scrapes provide their perfect habitat. Even then, they are difficult – skulking in cover, their slim shape perfectly adapted for weaving in and out of stems and stalks. More often, you might hear their calls – grunts, squeals and blood-curdling screams. There are water rails at Otley Wetland Reserve. Regular readers of Nature Notes may remember the gruesome remains of one – its large scaly feet -in a long-eared owl’s pellet found there last year. And, one was seen in an Addingham garden, January 2010.