Jen Chandler

Sometimes described as sounding like a disgruntled squealing piglet. Or perhaps you’ve heard its tired moan and sharp ‘kip’ calls when disturbed, the water rail is a common backdrop to your wetland walk. But how many of us can say we have seen one in the open, or even, photographed one? Well Nature’s Home reader, Anne-Marie Imeson ticked all the boxes. 

The photo, taken at RSPB Leighton Mosscaptures the water rail’s stark orange-red eye and beakThe upperparts are a camouflaged streaky brown, with a grey underbelly, and grey and white stripes on its sides. This water rail’s eye-catching plumage now obvious, as it makes the first tentative steps out of the relative safety of the reeds. The stripy patterns distort watchful eyes and make it harder to distinguish their outline and shape, a much harder target for potential predators. 

Water rail – Anne-Marie Imeson 

Hide and seek 

The water rail is more elusive than shyWhen compared to its close relativesthe moorhen and cootthe water rail is smaller and noticeably slimmer; allowing it to slip amongst dense vegetation surrounding its wetland habitat 

You are unlikely to spot a water rail in the breeding season (March – June); in fact, you are more likely to hear a water rail than see it, as during this time they spend most of their time deep in the reeds. 

Winter is the time of the year when the water rail becomes more familiar with people. This means they can become surprisingly confident, if you’ve experienced a friendly winter water rail let us know – contact details at the end of this blog. 


European visitors 

British and Irish water rails are mostly here all year round. However, in late autumnsome water rails that spend their breeding summer months in northern and eastern Europe, travel to the UK for winter. By taking advantage of our comparatively balmy winter weather, these winter migrants have access to better food availability making it worth the long flight.  

In the UK, water rails are more concentrated in East Anglia, but they can be seen throughout England and coastal Wales. Ireland, however, has higher densities of water rails compared to the rest of Britain. 


Fuss-free eating 

Water rails prefers freshwater wetlands with dense vegetation. They feed both on the land and along the muddy banks, and in water, where their long legs come in handy! 

Water rail – Anne-Marie Imeson 

Another image taken by Anne-Marie, this time showing the water rail with something in its beak. It is likely to be a small snail or seed as water rails have a varied diet making them omnivorous. 

They will catch and feed on small snailsinsects, spiders, frogs, small mammals, and even birds! In the autumn and winter, the water rail will eat berries, other fruit and plant shoots and roots when invertebrates are harder to find. 


Water rail in action 

This video below shows the water rail in a similar environment to the picture’s that Anne took. You can see its animated head and tail, whilst it bobs up and down, and the size difference as it passes a close relative, the coot.