Eastern and Western Water Rails

Back in February 2012 I saw my first Water Rail in China… Remarkably it was a Western Water Rail and not the expected Eastern Water Rail (now a separate species – “Brown-cheeked Rail”).

In a sign of just how difficult it is to see Brown-cheeked Rail in Beijing, it was only this Spring that I saw my first, more than 2 years since that Western in the Olympic Forest Park.

So it was a big surprise to see a minimum of 4 Brown-cheeked Rails at Miyun last week.  It was reassuring that the first one I saw was noticeably different to Western.  It was darker overall, caused by the larger dark centres to the feathers on the upperparts, the face was darker, almost with a mask, the undertail coverts were heavily marked and there was a brownish wash on the breast, all combining to give Brown-cheeked Rail a distinctive appearance.

Here is some video of one of the four present.

And here are some stills of both Brown-cheeked and Western Water Rail for comparison:

Brown-cheeked Rail, Miyun, September 2014.  Note the larger dark centres to the feathers on the upperparts and the more marked face.
Brown-cheeked Rail, Miyun, September 2014. Note the larger dark centres to the feathers on the upperparts and the more marked face.
Water Rail sp, Olympic Forest Park, Beijing.  Note the relatively plain face pattern, restricted barring on the flanks and grey (not grey-brown) underparts.
‘Western’ Water Rail, Olympic Forest Park, Beijing. Note the relatively plain face pattern and grey (not grey-brown) underparts.
Brown-cheeked Rail, Miyun.  Note the heavily marked undertail coverts.
Brown-cheeked Rail, Miyun. Note the heavily marked undertail coverts.
Western Water Rail, Olympic Forest Park, February 2012.  Note the unmarked undertail coverts.
‘Western’ Water Rail, Olympic Forest Park, February 2012. The undertail coverts are unmarked.

Finally, this is a recording of the call of one the Miyun birds…  quite different to the usual ‘squeal’ from Western Water Rail that I am used to from home.

Easy, eh?  Although Western is a (probably regular) vagrant to eastern China, it’s unlikely that Brown-cheeked will ever make it to the Western Palearctic as its breeding range is restricted to eastern China, far southeast Russia, Japan and the Koreas.  The range of the subspecies of Western and Eastern (part of the 2010 paper by Tavares, de Kroon and Baker indicating that they are separate species) can be seen here.

Water Rail Tragedy

On Saturday morning I decided to check on the Western Water Rail in the Olympic Forest Park.  When I arrived on site, my heart sank.  All of the small areas of reeds that had been left uncut at the beginning of the winter had disappeared, including the section favoured by the Water Rail and its Moorhen companions.  There has clearly been some ‘management work’ over the last few days and, for some reason, these reedbeds – which were also a haven for other species, including Chinese (Light-vented Bulbul) and Black-faced Bunting – were given the chop.  Needless to say, there was no sign of these birds today and, with a brisk northerly blowing, I recorded very few birds at all.  A couple of Red-flanked Bluetails and a male Daurian Redstart were as good as it got.

The reedbed at the Olympic Forest Park in February. The closest clump, on the left, was the favoured haunt of the Western Water Rail.

 

The reedbed today. Everything has been cut. Consequence: no Water Rail.

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?