Just to make it clear for people who aren’t familiar with aquatic birds, a ‘rail’ is the common term given to birds within the Rallidae family which also include coots and swamp hens. They are birds which are adapting to swim and stalk in marshes and reeds. Most healthy wetlands will attract one of the species of rail which rely on aquatic vegetation for the staple of their diet.
The rails that you are most likely to see are:
- Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio)
- Dusky Moor Hen (Gallinula tenebrosa)
- Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra)
The largest of the rails around Sydney is the Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio). This conspicuous prehistoric looking bird can be told a part from other rails easily by the size (much larger than the other rails reaching almost 50 cm tall) along with the purple/blue sheen across the neck and belly. The Purple Swamphen requires heavily vegetated wetlands with plenty of sun light. Like the other rails, the Purple Swamphens have a confused and complex mating system. Some times the birds pair up, some times their is co-operative raising of the young by other younger individuals in the family group, where all birds contribute time into egg incubation and nest protection. During spring and early summer you may also witness the antics of the males fighting for dominance, with raucous screams and viscous confrontations. The looser is often chased away.
Some easy spots to see these birds include Audley in the Royal National Park and most of the freshwater wetlands within Sydney Olympic Park.
The other rail you are likely to see and which is probably the most common of the three is the Dusky Moorhen (Gallinula tenebrosa). This rail is smaller than the Purple Swamphen, reaching a maximum of 40 cm tall. This bird is easily distinguished from the Purple Swamphen as it lacks the purple/blue sheen and also has a yellow tipped beaked in contrast to the entirely red colored beak of the swamphen (See photo below).
The Dusky Moorhen enjoys heavily vegetated wetlands were they forage on aquatic plants. Like the Purple Swamphen, the Dusky Moorhen also has a complicated mating system involving communal nesting. Many of the Dusky Swamphen populations in Sydney currently have babies with them.
Some easy spots to see this very common rail include Sydney Olympic Park, the wetland in Louisa Reserve in Bass Hill, Tudar Road wetland in Bonnet Bay, Audley in the Royal National Park, even Camelia Gardens in Caringbah has recently had some Dusky Moorhens move in and successfully raise babies their! This rail species seems to be one of the first wetland birds to move in to newly created wetlands (not including ducks).
The last rail which is commonly seen is the unique Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra). This rail is easily distinguished from the others as it bears a white beak contrasting with completely black plumage. This bird is perhaps more adapted to an aquatic lifestyle as they have strange webbed feet which is one of their most striking features when you get a closer look. The Eurasian Coot is very adaptable in its foraging and may forage on land, dabble in water or even dive for food. They will eat aquatic vegetation, insects, even birds eggs if they find them. They nest in talls reeds which have died or have been flattened out, where they lay a few young. The young of the Eurasian Coot have a tough life as they are frequently the target of predators such as herons and egrets. Their survival is also at risk from their own parents who are known to be very tough on the hatchlings. If they have no food for them and the young keep begging they will prod their young harshly, sometimes killing them.
Some good spots to see this quite common rail species is in Audley, Sydney Olympic Park and Louisa Reserve in Ball Hill.
If you want to see all three of these rails in one day its best to check out the various wetlands in Sydney Olympic Park or the Audley Lagoon in the Royal National Park. Both of these locations have many extra amazing bird life surprises. Hopefully this post has given you enough information to ID some of your local wetland birds!