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.

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4 thoughts on “Eastern and Western Water Rails”

  1. Thanks Gretchen. On a couple of occasions I saw one acting very territorial, chasing another away from its “patch”, so I suspect they are unrelated. I *don’t think* they breed at Miyun (I haven’t seen or heard them in spring/summer), so I suspect they are passage migrants, temporarily using the reedy fringes to the reservoir as home.

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