The Cottage Smallholder


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Moorhen, Gallinula chloropus

moorhen and chickWhen I returned to Anna’s house this week, deep in the Essex countryside, something drew me to the window of a peaceful upstairs bedroom that overlooks the moat. I spotted a moorhen swimming with two chicks.

Moorhens are shy creatures. They are enchanting wild birds but rush for the cover of the reeds if they hear the gentlest footfall. If you are lucky, you just see a fleeting foot and a flash of white tail. Then they vanish. For ages.

I shot down to fetch my camera from under Jalopy’s front seat. By the time I returned to the bedroom, the moorhens had moved on. The moorhen had at least four chicks. During a break, I kicked off my boots and crept across the grass towards the water. There was a fleeting glimpse of a naughty chick, several yards from its mother. Her warning cry is a short alarm, something in between a quack and a bark. A quark.

He obediently rushed for the reeds each time he heard this quark. Seconds later, his yellow tipped beak would poke through the reeds and his head venture gingerly out to examine The Ogre.

Despite standing still, my paint splattered cnaughty moorhen chickslothes must stand out clearly from the natural green/brown tones of the countryside. He eventually responded to a final, sharp quark and I watched him creep away into a dark hole and become totally invisible.

Today I was determined to get some photographs. Each time I crept to the pond mother and babies shot swifty out of view. Suddenly I had an idea. There is a lovely old dilapidated barn beside the pond, covered with ivy. This could be my hide.

Camera in hand, I crept across the grass in my socks and slowly picked my way across to the barn. Finding a vantage point took some time as the barn was full of stuff. Finally I peeped through a crack and a gap in the ivy.

The moorhen was swimming with a chick. There were four chicks on the bank with another adult moorhen. Two fluffy chicks ignored all instructions from their mum (a more lyrical quack-bark sequence) and played in the sunshine. The chicks can only be a few days old but they were already independent and, judging from their scratching, the feathers that will replace their down are already coming through.

I watched them for a good five minutes. Dramatic and tender. There is nothing like the promise of Spring.


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