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Monthly column: Take a Walk on the Wild Side

A familiar coot, seen on lakes, rivers and ponds.
A familiar coot, seen on lakes, rivers and ponds.

This month Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust’s Rachel Shaw writes about coots, moorhens and their secretive cousin.

Two of our most familiar birds of lakes, ponds and rivers are coots and moorhens. With rounded bodies and distinctive beaks with a strange-looking forehead shield they are easy to identify.

A moorhen.
A moorhen.

Coots can be distinguished from the similar moorhen by their larger size, entirely black body (with no white patches) and their bright white bill. Coots spend more of their time on the water than moorhens and will dive to catch small invertebrates and eat waterweeds.

Unlike ducks, coots will bring their catch to the surface before eating it, leading to squabbles over food.

Moorhens have their olive-black backs which are separated from their blue-black bodies by a white line, the white patches under the tail and their red bill which has a yellow tip. Although often seen on water, they spend more time out of water than coots and can even climb trees.

Moorhens are omnivores, eating everything from snails and insects to small fish and berries. When disturbed, they usually take cover in nearby vegetation and when they do take to the air, their flight is short and laboured.

A Water Rail, photographed by Don Davis.
A Water Rail, photographed by Don Davis.

Coots and moorhens are members of a large family of birds called rails, with species that are found on every continent (except Antarctica) and not always associated with wetlands. Coots and moorhens are perhaps unusual members of the family in their gregarious outgoing nature. Many of the rails are secretive and shy.

Lurking in the reedbeds of nature reserves like Willow Tree Fen (between Baston and Spalding) is one of the more secretive members of the rail family: the water rail. Smaller than coots and moorhens, water rails are mainly grey, with black and brown streaked upper parts and black and white barring on the flanks. They have a long, red bill and pale pink legs. They live in reedbeds and freshwater wetlands where they feed on invertebrates and small fish.

When you live in dense vegetation, it’s useful to have a loud voice. Water rails may seem shy and rarely seen but they are more often heard calling - sounding like a piglet squealing, they are unmistakable.


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