01 April 2015

British birds: a waterbird selection

Cheshire is one Britain’s most water-filled counties so I’ve encountered a wealth of waterbirds during this past six months of walking in the local countryside. Here are just a few of them.


Moorhen (Gallinula chloropsis)
This bird looks very familiar to me as we have a similar bird in my native New Zealand and I remember being surprised during a visit to the Amazon jungle in Peru to see a bird I recognised from home – their Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinicus) looks remarkably like our Pukeko (Porphyrio melanotus melanotus). All three birds make the same high-pitched squeak and have that same cheeky strut, continuously flashing their white undertail as they sashay along, though there are some colour differences. The British moorhen has a yellow tip to its beak and yellowish-green legs and its body colouring seems less vibrant to my eye.

The moorhen is widespread throughout Britain, second only to the mallard in the extent of its habitable range. Prior to 1954, when nest predation was made illegal, eggs were regularly taken for food – apparently they go well with bacon! The bird itself can be shot and eaten during the season, usually from 1 September to 31 January, though I’m not sure how palatable their strong dark meat would be, and I certainly wouldn’t be tempted to kill or eat a bird that is so pretty and so highly entertaining.

Coot (Fulica atra)
The common coot is also considered a game bird in Britain, with the same hunting season as the moorhen, though I would certainly never be tempted to kill one of these either. Maybe it’s something to do with birds and water, but these are also captivating to watch. The bird’s engaging silliness is probably where the idiom ‘silly coot’, used to describe a foolish person, originated. And the coot’s white head blaze is the source of another common expression ‘to be as bald as a coot’, though bald here does not mean hairless; an alternate definition of bald is ‘marked or streaked with white’. Apparently, this phrase is an ancient one, first noted in the monk John Lydgate's 1430 publication Chronicle of Troy. 

The coot is also very familiar to me as it was introduced to New Zealand in 1958 and, like most immigrants, has made itself right at home. I am constantly fascinated by its bizarre lobed feet, a cross between the long toes of wading birds and the webbed feet of swimming birds like ducks.


Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)
I’m pleased to report that the Grey Heron is the most widespread large predatory bird in Britain and it is flourishing, with an estimated 12205 occupied nests in 2010. Herons nest communally, usually in tall mature trees, but they can and do adapt to their local environment. Some heronries are known to have been in continuous use for hundreds of years and the largest heronry in Britain is in a private wood on the north side of Budworth Mere, though I’ve seen very few heron during my frequent walks along the southern shores of that lovely lake.

This is another bird the Brits used to eat – from the early medieval period right through to the nineteenth century it was an important and relatively expensive table item. Historically, the heron was a favourite target / victim of falconry and, in order for the well-heeled to continue their enjoyment of the sport, the heron's protection was enshrined in law (being found guilty of a second offence against a heron could result in the loss of your right hand, a third in death!). Once falconry lost its popularity, the heron lost its protection and, in fact, the bird now gets persecuted by fishermen who accuse it of taking ‘their’ fish. 

Personally, I think it’s the heron’s fish and I can’t help but feel sorry that this beautiful bird should suffer due to the sporting whims of humans.

Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)
Cormorants are common around the world – the Chinese have long been known to train domesticated birds for fishing and, in 17th-century England, it was also a court fashion to tame cormorants for fishing, a trend so prevalent that the royal household included a Master of the Cormorants.

These large and very distinct birds – to me quite reptilian in appearance – can be found throughout the UK, in their preferred habitats of rocky coastlines and coastal estuaries, as well as on inland lakes and waterways. Though they also suffer bad press from fishermen, the birds are particularly well regarded in Liverpool, where the Liver Bird – actually a cormorant – is the city's emblem.

Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus)
I’ve been delighted by this Grebe’s mating display at Budworth Mere in recent days. They make a rather noisy but thoroughly entertaining exhibition of head shaking and neck swaying and bill touching that is a joy to watch, especially with their vibrant neck plumage highlighting their every move. It comes as no surprise that those pretty plumes were once prized by early Victorian milliners to decorate their more extravagant creations. That usage, and the fact that the fine soft feathering on the bird’s body was also valued for costume adornment, meant the Great Crested Grebe was one of Britain’s rarest breeding species by the mid-1800s.

Luckily, laws were enacted to protect Britain’s water birds but the Grebe's recovery can also be attributed to mankind’s activities – and not in the way you might imagine. The massive increases in both road building and house building following the Second World War required enormous amounts of gravel, and the Great Crested Grebe was one of the birds that benefitted from the gravel pits once they had been abandoned and filled with water. It’s a fitting testament to how well Nature can recover from man’s interference in the landscape.

Many of the fact-lets for this blog post came from that most excellent publication, Birds Britannica, Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, Chatto & Windus, London, 2005.