05/10/2008
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Mud fights at Titchfield Haven

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Those of you who peruse our ever-growing photo galleries have been entertained for the past few days with the frankly violent goings-on at Titchfield Haven National Nature Reserve. I thought it would be fun to bring the photos together, and add a little background to this typical Water Rail behaviour.

Water Rail
Water Rail, Titchfield Haven NNR, Hampshire (Photo: Richard Ford)

Richard tells us that the Water Rails have been showing well at Titchfield recently due to the low water levels, occasionally fighting and showing well for long periods. As this one wandered around feeding, he left a trail in the soft wet mud.

Other photographers managed to catch the birds fighting intensely, producing some remarkable pictures. Steve Purcell was one of those in the right place at the right time, and captured this week's Picture of the Week amongst this sequence:

Water Rail
Water Rail, Titchfield Haven NNR, Hampshire (Photo: Steve Purcell)

Water Rail
Water Rail, Titchfield Haven NNR, Hampshire (Photo: Steve Purcell)

Water Rail
Water Rail, Titchfield Haven NNR, Hampshire (Photo: Steve Purcell)

Water Rail
Water Rail, Titchfield Haven NNR, Hampshire (Photo: Steve Purcell)

Johnny Carr happened to be passing the reserve on business, and popped in because the sun was shining. He captured the following pictures, further illustrating just how violent these encounters can be. Johnny told me, "There were at least four Water Rails present, and I was hoping to get some shots of them. Suddenly this huge fight broke out right in front of the hide."

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Water Rail
Water Rail, Titchfield Haven NNR, Hampshire (Photo: Johnny Carr)

Water Rail
Water Rail, Titchfield Haven NNR, Hampshire (Photo: Johnny Carr)

Water Rail
Water Rail, Titchfield Haven NNR, Hampshire (Photo: Johnny Carr)

Water Rail
Water Rail, Titchfield Haven NNR, Hampshire (Photo: Johnny Carr)

Water Rail
Water Rail, Titchfield Haven NNR, Hampshire (Photo: Johnny Carr)

Water Rail
Water Rail, Titchfield Haven NNR, Hampshire (Photo: Johnny Carr)

Water Rail
Water Rail, Titchfield Haven NNR, Hampshire (Photo: Johnny Carr)

Johnny also caught a picture of the victorious bird sharming. If this is a new word for you, you might be interested in the full BWPi description of the Water Rail's behaviour:

Antagonistic Behaviour

As breeding pairs highly territorial, aggressive behaviour well-developed. Disputes often involve Charging-attack with lowered body and neck stretched forwards; sometimes male and female attack together, intruder usually fleeing. Victor may then stand erect on toes and make long-drawn Announcement-call (so-called 'sharming'). Fighting and stabbing intruders with bill also recorded.

Wintering birds, Cornwall, studied by B King, bickered among themselves a great deal. When contesting feeding places, encounter somewhat cockerel-like: on first meeting, both birds-each with bill slightly open and throat vibrating rapidly-immediately called ('sharmed') at each other as they stood high up on toes with body, neck, and head stretched up, breasts sometimes almost touching; then each started to head-jerk while thrusting bill at other, stepping threateningly forward or momentarily retreating. Such encounters brief (estimated at 20 s or less), ending when one bird showed submissive behaviour: retreated a little with head half-turned away and fully stretched head and neck now almost touching ground; then moved quietly towards own feeding territory. Dominant bird, retaining aggressive stance, then called while moving head to and fro with wings partly outstretched, standing thus before also resuming normal feeding. When disturbed by man, runs quickly to cover, often freezing in crouched position with bill pointing down; similar response also in chicks. At nest, may continue to incubate even when touched, or attempt defence, even attacking intruder; frequently runs round intruder's feet, feathers ruffled, using distress or aggressive call, or attempts to lure intruder away by injury-feigning. Also carries young away in bill.


Sharming (Photo: Johnny Carr)

BWPi provides a wealth of this sort of information on over 900 species of bird. You can buy BWPi here.
Written by: Fiona Barclay

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