There are five Moorhens on the old pond at the moment, their stuttering swimming strokes tracing lines through the waterweed as they move in and out of shadow. It seems that just about any piece of water will suit them, from the extensive reedbeds of coastal marshes through to the sunken hollows of the larger grassy fields.
The Moorhen has long fascinated me, seemingly innocuous and predominantly sedentary, you might think that it has little of interest to offer the observer. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. This is a bird of contrasts; a cooperative breeder (whose early brood young may stay on to help rear later broods) but which is not averse to dumping eggs in the nests of neighbouring pairs. While our populations are largely sedentary, those from further north are migratory in habits. Other aspects of the annual cycle are equally interesting.
The long breeding season begins early in the year, with the first eggs laid from the middle of March, and the season itself continues through into August. The first nests are often predated, perhaps because of the lack of nesting cover so early in the year. Undeterred, pairs will lay repeat clutches and many may rear two broods over the summer, with some managing to raise three. Then there are the nests themselves. Moorhens make three different types of nest. The first to be built are the display nests; these consist of sedges, reeds and dead twigs and are used for sexual display and, ultimately, coition. The first of these may be constructed from late February onwards, with some territories sporting up to five such platforms. Then there is the egg nest, built from fresh or dead water plants, usually on the ground within shallow water. The size of the nest may be enhanced if water levels rise. Very occasionally the nest may be built in a bush, possibly several metres above the ground and on top of the old nest of another species. Finally, there are the brood nests; constructed soon after the eggs hatch, these provide a refuge for the young chicks.
At this time of the year, however, the Moorhens are more concerned with finding sufficient food to get them through the winter. Many pairs will remain on their territories as long as they have access to open water. Should these ice over then the birds will be forced to move elsewhere, possibly onto neutral areas where they will feed alongside other birds. Even here, they are fun to watch and we are fortunate that our Moorhens are so trusting of Man. In other parts of their range, where they are a table bird, they tend to be shy and retiring.