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Nomadic, Scarce, Secretive… Crakes and Rails

By Keith Hutton on February 21, 2011 in Other

Photo: Aiden Webb

Crakes and rails are small to medium size birds that superficially resemble miniature, slimline backyard chooks in their general proportions. They walk and run rather than hop, and are usually seen in rank patches of grassland, rushes or reed beds around the muddy edges of ponds and swamps. Most are shy, secretive and reluctant to fly, preferring to run into thick cover when disturbed. They are rarely seen well, but their presence can be confirmed by loud calls that are a mixture of grunts, screeches, creaks, and ticking and whirring sounds emanating from the tangled vegetation where they prefer to live.

Five different types of crakes and rails have been recorded in the Sydney region where they are generally scarce and nomadic, and their occurrence in any area is unpredictable. They turn up virtually anywhere in parks, gardens, backyards, open drains and creek lines. As a consequence of their reluctance to fly your cat may surprise you by bringing one home!

The largest of the group are Buff-banded Rails and, although they are uncommon in Sydney, some breed in the Botanic Gardens where they have become accustomed to people and less timid. Lewin’s Rails are very secretive and rarely seen, but have bred in the Sydney region too, and are recorded regularly but infrequently at Malabar Headland and Olympic Park.

The other three are smaller, less common, more unpredictable nomads that have been noticed on many Sydney wetlands, but you will need a lot of patience and luck to see any of them. Searching quietly late or early in the day, or in dull overcast conditions in suitable habitat when wetlands are drying out, will improve your chances. Baillon’s Crakes are no bigger than House Sparrows so getting a decent view or a photograph of one is a notable achievement. Notwithstanding this, enthusiastic young wildlife photographer Aiden Webb captured the impressive image of a Baillon’s Crake accompanying this article when he was just nine years old.

Because of the difficulties involved in observing crakes and rails it is hard to know whether or not their national status has changed since European settlement. There is just not enough data to enable reliable conclusions to be drawn. What is clear is that Buff-banded Rails are more likely to be seen in Sydney than other members of the group, and there appears to have been no significant change in national reporting for any of the species that visit Sydney over the last 30 to 40 years. Lewin’s Rail is considered ‘near threatened’ in Australia, due primarily to loss of habitat through drainage and river diversion, and there is cause for concern for this species. Furthermore, Lewin’s Rails are presumed to be extinct in Western Australia, so preservation of wetlands where they continue to be observed in other parts the continent would appear to be vital to ensure a future for these enigmatic birds.