The winter landscape feels open; last year’s growth is now brittle beneath my feet and the chill of the wind cuts into my exposed flesh as sharply as the dry reeds that edge the narrow path. Summer’s green and lush vitality, expressed through the aromatic growth of fenland plants, has been replaced by the crisp bleached browns of umbellifer stalks, now dead, and wind blown branches. Other than the sound of the reeds being pushed against one another by the wind, there is little other noise. For a few brief minutes I am treated to the twittering calls of a tit flock as it moves through the alders in search of food but even these birds do not linger.
Then, quite suddenly, I hear it; an abrupt whistling squeal reveals the presence of a water rail. It is close-by, ahead of me in the reeds but hidden from view. This retiring bird, with its repertoire of grunts, squeaks and squeals, is one of the real characters of the bird world. Seen well, it is possible to appreciate the mix of colours that adorn this clown of the fens. The rich brown back, streaked with black and the soft grey of the neck and breast may seem plain enough but the zebra-striped flanks, red eye and red, slightly down-curved, bill add a sense of showmanship. Still, this is a reclusive clown and is more often seen, if seen at all, disappearing into the reeds with a flash of its white undertail coverts and a smooth swift gait. This gait has given rise to the local name “skittycock” in some parts of England – the word “skit” originally meaning to move lightly and rapidly – but it is the water rail’s calls that give rise to a more lasting name, one that has its origins in Norfolk. During the 1800s, when water rails and their eggs appeared regularly on the stalls of Norwich market between March and May, it was known as a “sharmer”. Since then, this name has been adapted to refer to the piercing calls uttered by the rail, reminiscent of squealing piglets, and known widely as “sharming”. It is this name that appears in the textbooks.
It is during the winter months, when continental immigrants join our resident birds, that you stand your best chance of seeing a water rail. If temperatures fall below zero, freezing over favoured water bodies, then water rails may be forced from cover in search of food. At such times they may also supplement their largely insectivorous diet with carrion or fresh meat, the latter sometimes taken in the form of small birds stabbed or grabbed and drowned. A clown with a sinister side?