Eastern or Western Water Rail?

How are y’all on Water Rail identification?  Great….

I took these images of a Water Rail sp in the Olympic Forest Park, Beijing, this afternoon.  The bird has been around since at least December, frequenting a small area of reedbed with two Moorhens.  After two failed attempts to see it, it was third time lucky today.  And it showed spectacularly well.

There is a suggestion – initially raised by Jesper Hornskov – that this could be a Western Water Rail rather than the expected Eastern Water Rail (now recognised as a separate species by most authorities).  The head pattern, flank barring, colour of the underparts and the undertail coverts are all said to be the key features.  From looking at images of Eastern Water Rail on the Oriental Bird Club image database and images of Western on the internet, I am inclined to think that this is possibly a Western.  But I have ZERO experience of Eastern Water Rail, having never seen it in China or anywhere else.  I guess the question that has to be answered is – can a first winter Eastern Water Rail look like this?

If it is a Western, it would be a significant record (it has occured in Hong Kong apparently).

Anyone willing to put their neck on the line?

I’ll post some more info when I have done some more digging.

A nice surprise as I was watching this bird was a flock of 5 Olive-backed Pipits that landed briefly to drink from a small pool of water before heading off north – spring migration has begun!

Water Rail sp, Olympic Forest Park, Beijing. Note the relatively plain face pattern, restricted barring on the flanks and grey (not grey-brown) underparts. Suggestive of Western Water Rail?
Water Rail sp, Olympic Forest Park, Beijing.
Water Rail sp, Olympic Forest Park, Beijing. The undertail is very clean, suggesting Western, but can a first winter Eastern look like this?

12 thoughts on “Eastern or Western Water Rail?”

  1. Hi Terry

    I have no personal experience of Eastern Water (AKA brown-cheeked) Rail, but do have a copy of “Rails ~ A Guide to the Rails, Crakes, Gallinules and Coots of the World” by Taylor and van Perlo in front of me… not sure if you have access to that.

    It states that indicus is… “Slightly larger than nominate; has brown streak from lores below eye to ear-coverts; chin whiter; breast and sides of body extensively tinged brown; adults and juveniles have more boldly and extensively barred wing-coverts.”

    Looking at the few online photos of indicus, the brown streak is obvious and the white chin, fairly so. The browner breast/breast-sides is also very clear (often with more streaking on the neck-side apparent). I can’t see any of this on your bird. In fact it matches, almost exactly, pictures of Western Water Rail from the UK. The feint brownish spot on the rear ear-coverts and hint on the central breast matches exactly with many western. I cannot see wing-covert barring in photos of either species and suspect this might only normally be visible in the hand or perhaps when stretching/preening.

    From the limited material available online, I can only see ‘your’ bird being Western… but what do I know? As you say, perhaps immature birds look different. I must admit, I can only imagine immature indicus being even browner. Not bluer as this bird is. Have you tried Birdforum bird ID posts at http://www.birdforum.net/forumdisplay.php?f=114 ?

    All the best

    Ken

    1. Hi Ken, thanks very much for your extremely valuable comment. I do not have the “Rails” book and it’s illuminating to hear what it says on identifying Eastern (indicus). As you say, the Beijing bird fits Western Water Rail much better on the book’s criteria. It’ll be a cracking record if it is one. I haven’t tried Birdforum or Surfbirds yet but might do now to draw in a few ‘experts’..! Thanks again, Terry

      1. Seems strange indeed to move to Beijing, see a water rail and not be able to ‘tick’ Eastern Water Rail (how much more eastern could you be?), but that’s the way it’s looking. It will be interesting to see any comments on Birdforum/Surfbirds. Good luck.
        Ken

    1. Reading further in the Rails book, for Western Water Rail of the subspecies korejewi which breeds in western China (in that book, all including indicus were then regarded as forming one water rail species but the recent split makes indicus monotypic and korejewi part of Western, I believe) there is the comment; “Vaurie (1965) regards it as wintering E to C China (Qinghai and C Gansu) and possibly to coastal E China”. So presumably your bird is of this subspecies.

      Description of korejewi is as follows: “Slightly larger than nominate; upperparts have paler, olive buff, fringes and more restricted black on feather centres; underparts slightly paler slate blue.”

      1. …and I would suggest that ‘your’ bird has more restricted black feather centres producing a spotted rather than streaked appearance. I shall leave judging the shade of blue to you!

      2. Paul Leader (a China bird authority) has just posted this comment on the Surfbirds identification forum:

        “This is an obvious Western Water Rail based on the features you mention. Structurally, Western and Eastern (or as it called by the IOC Brown-cheeked Rail – a terrible name!) are quite different. Eastern is very stocky, has short rather thick looking legs and a stouter bill. Structurally it looks more like a Slaty-breasted Rail Gallirallus striatus than a Western Water Rail. Western does indeed breed in Xinjiang and the are historical records from eastern China (mainly from la Touche) and a recent winter record from Hong. Eastern is clearly the commonest in HK being a regular winter visitor, but my feeling is that small numbers of Western winter in eastern China but are simply overlooked (if detected at all).”

        Case closed! And Ken was right with the id!

  2. … I was just reading from a book! I’m sure if I was there, I wouldn’t have given Western Water Rail a second thought and would happily have added Eastern Water Rail to my list; “I’m in China… it has to be Eastern Water Rail”.

    I actually quite like the name “Brown-cheeked (Water) Rail”. From the pictures I’ve seen online, it seems like an appropriate, if rather inelegant name.

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