Early- to mid-May is the time for young birds around here. Though I haven’t seen any yet, we’ve had regular reports of young Moorhens in the area, so I’ve decided to post some old stock from previous seasons, all of it taken on the Forth and Clyde Canal between Speirs Wharf and Maryhill Locks. I run on this section of towpath giving me good opportunities to recce possible birdwatching sites. I can usually guarantee a Moorhen or two and they’re a cheering sight. Despite their size and ubiquity, I’ve found that my photographs are often disappointing; unless the birds have a very good reason to be still, they seem to be in perpetual and erratic motion and I rarely get the crispness I want in an image. I like this one – the colours seem true to life and the orange garter at the top of the leg is visible. There is a hint of blue sheen towards the base of the neck.
The WWT tells me that: “The orange-red bill with a bright yellow tip is actually coded so other moorhens can tell how healthy an individual is – much as flamingos do. Scientists have shown the different colours on the bird’s bill are actually health indicators. The red seems to be related to low levels of bacterial infection, and the yellow to blood parameters such as resistance to infection. The brighter the colours, the more attractive the bird is deemed.” One source for this is a paper by Fenoglio et al. (Bird Study, 2002, 49, 89–92). The authors endorse the yellow colour at the tip as a health indicator. I couldn’t find a source for the reference to the red colour. The colours arise from the presence of carotenoids – violet to green light is being absorbed hence the red to yellow coloration.
As usual, the BTO have interesting material on their website including this: “Moorhen courtship and territoriality has been well studied owing to their abundance in and around University towns.” I haven’t seen the delicate courtship or the rather spectacular fighting when I’ve had the camera in hand, alas.
I have seen pairs nest building; the bird doing the leg work gets to make trip after trip across and up and down the canal. It’s tiring work and you can see how errors might creep in with growing fatigue. After what looks like a good start, this bird has gone wrong and started bringing items which need a good cut down. My copy of “The British Ornithologists Guide to Bird Life” (Blandford Press, Poole, 1980, ISBN 0 7137 0996 0) tells me that “The male builds the nest, the female helping by collecting nesting materials” which is not what I expected.
More successful construction projects will culminate in the pair taking turns to incubate five to seven eggs for up to twenty-one days. More than one female may lay eggs in a nest according to my RSPB book.
We had watched a nest being built on the canal by The Whisky Bond. This part of the canal has the first reedy margins on offer after the stone banks of Speirs Wharf. The nest was tucked in right under the towpath making it quite difficult to see, unless you were looking for it. I followed up our weekend viewing with a run during the week; things had moved on, with a bird incubating eggs. I kept checking the nest and we timed a weekend walk to give us a chance of some chicks. We were blessed with sunshine and this sight.
May I stress that I am at quite a distance from the nest, using all the reach of my zoom lens so as not to loom? This piece in The Guardian writes nicely about the bird and describes chicks in a threatening situation.
I took quite a lot of pictures and have posted some extras in a gallery at the end. I will limit myself to a few of the most appealing here in the main post.
It really is amazing that any of these tiny creatures survive beyond a few days, given the number of potential threats, yet some do. The parents must move them away from nest sites pretty quickly and if I’m paying attention, I’ll hear them peeping away in the margins. Close inspection may then reveal them but they are usually very well concealed. The birds in the next images are much further on developmentally, and quite competent. I found them much closer to Maryhill on a stretch where the vegetation stretched from bank-to-bank (it has since been cleared). The individual in the third image must be pretty well fed because it is ignoring two large snails which are grazing on the lily pads. Had I realised the snails were there when I took the photograph, I would have tried a bit harder and perhaps managed to secure an image which I could have used to identify them.
This Moorhen looks well grown and may be part of the breeding population by now.
I always try to look for a work from visual or literary culture based on my species of the week. I thought a good countryman like John Clare might help me out with something charming about Moorhens but I was relying on Ecosia to find it. Ecosia appeared to have turned up some Burns but “The Bonie Moor-Hen” is clearly a grouse, even without the BBC’s helpful reference to “The Glorious 12th”. The giveaway is this couplet: “But still as the fairest she sat in their sight, Then, whirr! she was over, a mile at a flight.”
Moorhen flight is somewhat laboured and their take-off definitely not to be confused with a grouse exploding from the heather. British Moorhens are highly sedentary, but are joined in winter by migrants from continental Europe, especially the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. The BTO have provided ringing data which confirms this result. I’m really surprised that they cover such distances.
I can live with not seeing any freshly-hatched Moorhens this year; if I’m not seeing them, neither are the gulls or corvids and that’s definitely a good thing. I’m hoping to catch up with some slightly older birds a bit later in the season when they’re safer from harm and not such a worry.