I have immense love for colourful birds and raptors and that reflects in my photography. But I am equally fascinated by lesser-known bird families that I believe undeniably deserve more attention. All birds are great, but in this photo feature, I’m going to concentrate on the less-explored, minor league family – Rallidae. A decade ago, I had a glimpse of a Brown Crake in a weedy stream near the pump house at the Jungle Lodges & Resorts Old Magazine House property in Ganeshgudi. This species introduced me to the world of Raillidae. My co-birders challenged me to get a decent image of the bird, and that is how my love for this group of birds began.
Rallidae is a family of medium-sized, ground-dwelling birds exhibiting considerable diversity. The members include rails, crakes, gallinule, and coots, all of which mainly inhabit damp habitats near lakes, in reedy swamps, mangroves and paddy fields. A group of crakes are collectively known as a ‘bowl’, ‘box, or a ‘cob’. In general, the Europeans of yore assigned the common name ‘rail’ to members of the family with longer bills and ‘crake’ to the birds with stubby ones. To simplify, they can be divided into three groups: long-billed rails, short-billed crakes, and gallinules & coots.
This family is represented by about 20 species in India. In Karnataka, we come across 12 species of rails (Family Rallidae; Order Gruiformes). These are the birds of dense marshland vegetation and in general, they are shy and difficult to observe. Most species are usually seen at dusk and at night. Rails and crakes are notorious for their skulking behaviour, and nest in deep, dense vegetation. This makes capturing them on camera a challenge. Therefore, they are often overlooked by many a photographer.
Rails exhibit very little sexual dimorphism in either plumage or sizes. However, the Watercock and the Little Crake are exceptions. Their vocalisation consists of harsh grating or raucous calls which are repeated at times. They are omnivores and feed on insects (terrestrial and aquatic), molluscs, crustaceans, amphibians, small fish, vegetable matter (including seeds, grass, shoots and berries), eggs of other birds, etc. Most species have moderate to long legs suitable for wading. They walk and run vigorously on strong legs, and have long toes that are well adapted to soft, uneven surfaces. The wings are short and rounded, so they fly reluctantly and feebly, with legs dangling over short distances before dropping into the cover of vegetation. However, the flight of some species can be sustained for long periods of time and many species, like the Little Crake, undertake annual migrations.
- Baillon’s Crake (Zapornia pusilla)
Also known as the Marsh Crake, it is a small quail-sized waterbird. Baillon’s Crake breeds in the Indian Himalayas and is a widespread winter visitor. This species has a rolling “trrrrrrrr” call somewhat like that of the frog.
- Little Crake (Zapornia parva)
The Little Crake is a very small plover-sized bird and is rarely encountered in India. I am very lucky to have photographed it. Parva is Latin for “small”. It breeds in Europe, and winters in Africa.
- Spotted Crake (Porzana porzana)
It is a widespread winter visitor in the northern parts of India but is uncommon in Karnataka. Spotted Crake is appreciably bigger than other crakes, almost similar in size to a starling. These birds tend to skulk in thick cover and walk with their body close to the ground, while flicking the tail. They swim with a jerky action like that of the moorhen. If surprised in the open, they run for cover or jump up and flutter away with legs dangling.
- Ruddy-breasted Crake (Zapornia fusca)
Also known as Ruddy Crake, the bird is a resident in Karnataka with some northern populations migrating south in winter. The body is flattened laterally to allow easier passage through the reeds or undergrowth.
- Brown Crake (Zapornia akool)
Also called the Brown Bush-hen, it is a widespread resident in Karnataka. Despite its use of sheltered habitats, this is one of the bolder rails, and can be seen wandering in the open. The bird constantly cocks its tail upwards and downwards as it forages. One of the calls is reminiscent of the Little Grebe.
- Slaty-legged Crake (Rallina eurizonoides)
Also referred to as the Banded Crake, male and female birds of the species look alike. This rail is partial to wet areas in woodlands. They are very secretive and also partly nocturnal.
- Slaty-breasted Rail (Lewinia striata)
Like many other rails, this bird too moves about unobtrusively in dense vegetation in marshes, wet grasslands, flooded pastures, and mangroves. It occasionally forages in the open in close proximity to cover, especially early in the morning and evening. A combination of an intricately barred back and belly, gray throat and breast, and rufous crown and nape separates this furtive bird from similar species. A repeated “Ka-ka-ka” or a sharp “Kerrek” can be used to identify this rail.
- White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus)
It is a widespread resident in the state and can be seen foraging at the water’s edge. Their colouration is very distinct and does not pose any challenges in the identification of the bird. Being a shy bird, it retreats into the dense cover when it senses any disturbance. The raucous call of the bird can be often heard during the night.
- Watercock (Gallicrex cinerea)
It is a summer visitor to Karnataka and an extremely rare bird to sight. This distinctive marsh dweller is large and elusive and often difficult to see in the heavily vegetated wet fields and marshes it inhabits. It is a monotypic species, the only member of the genus Gallicrex. It resembles the moorhen and is considered to be closely related to it. Watercocks, unlike the other rails, exhibit marked sexual dimorphism. The male is unmistakable, having a unique black-gray plumage and an extended red frontal shield as well as a red horn. The females have brown plumage, which is paler on the underside. The plumage in females is streaked and barred with darker markings. The bill is yellow and the long legs and toes are greenish yellow. The bird is known to utter a wide range of calls.
- Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus)
It is a widespread resident in Karnataka, though not as commonly seen as the swamphen. These rails can be seen swimming as they venture away from the floating vegetation.
- Grey-headed Swamphen (Porphyrio poliocephalus)
It is a widespread resident in Karnataka where it can be seen frequenting ponds, lakes and other freshwater bodies with aquatic vegetation. It can be seen walking on floating vegetation with the help of its long toes. The tail is flicked up often in a very characteristic rail fashion.
- Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra)
Known also as the Common Coot, the bird can be seen swimming on open waters with its lobed toes. It can also be seen upending or grazing on grassy shore as it feeds. It patters noisily over the water before taking off. Coots can be very aggressive birds both towards their own kind and other birds, often indulging in noisy squabbles.