Watercock

It’s mid rainy season in Thailand and the ideal time for some farmland/wetland birding. Here in Chiang Mai, there are quite a few breeding visitors that can be seen regularly during the wet season in wetlands and farmlands, such as Cinnamon Bittern, Black Bittern, Oriental Pratincole and Watercock. Some other sedentary species also become much easier to see during the wet season when they become more vocal and territorial, such as Slaty-breasted Rail, Greater Painted-Snipe and Yellow Bittern. This year, I’ve put my focus on getting some good photos of the Watercock (Gallicrex cinerea), a species which I didn’t have many chances to photograph nicely.

Breeding male from Mae Faek (17 June 2021)

The Watercock is among the largest members of the family Rallidae in Thailand. It can be found in farmlands and wetlands throughout the country. In northern parts of Thailand, it is largely a breeding visitor that can be found mainly during the wet season. It is still a fairly common bird in my local patch around Mae Taeng district in Chiang Mai. The call of the male can be heard frequently during early morning and late evening in the rice fields, but seeing one proves to be much more challenging.

Breeding male from Mae Faek (17 June 2021)
Breeding male from Mae Faek (17 June 2021); note that this individual has a pronounced yellow eye ring unlike most birds that I’ve photographed.

I didn’t get to photograph this beautiful bird very often, even though it’s a fairly common bird at many places in Thailand, particularly in the central plains where there are plenty of suitable habitats. Its extremely shy and secretive behaviour makes it difficult to get a good view of this bird. Earlier this month, I decided to try and photograph as many Watercocks as possible, and it’s been a fun and challenging journey for me throughout the past few weeks. When I started to pay more attention to them, I realised that there are still quite a good number of this species in my local patch. In the area of approximately 2 km2 of rice fields, I’ve observed at least 10 males calling from different spots throughout the area.

Male Watercocks can be very vocal in early morning and late evening. They produce a series of loud booming and crackling calls by inflating air into the neck pouch. Here’s a calling male from Mae Faek (17 June 2021).
A compilation of footage taken at Mae Faek showing the male bird while calling
Unlike other rails and crakes, the Watercocks are often seen in flight. They have a surprisingly strong flight and can fly for great distance and height. In flight, the male shows a long white line along the front edge of the each wing which is mostly hidden when the wings are closed (Mae Faek, 17 June 2021).
Breeding male from Mae Faek (17 June 2021)
Another male from Mae Faek which appeared relatively small and lacked the yellow eye ring (22 June 2021)
A different male from Mae Faek showing the white edge of the wing as an aggressive gesture when encountering another male (17 June 2021)
This individual was probably the alpha male in this corner of Mae Faek paddies as it was the most vocal and aggressive individual. It also had the highest bright red frontal shield compared to other males (17 June 2021).
This male from Nam Kham Nature Reserve also had a high frontal shield. The plumage was also surprisingly fresh as the buff fringes to tertials and wing coverts were still mostly retained (14 June 2021).
Like other rallids, Watercocks are also good at swimming (Nam Kham Nature Reserve, 15 June 2021)

It’s really interesting to see plumage variations among the birds that I’ve photographed. The differences are mainly on the tone of the plumage, the length of red frontal shield, bill size and colour of the undertail coverts. I think that older birds tend to have darker plumage, larger bill and longer red frontal shield. Some males, presumably younger birds, have much paler greyish plumage with more buffish fringes on the head and neck. The undertail coverts also appear to be very variable. Some have all dark undertail coverts while some have whitish or buffish undertail coverts with dark barring.

A pale male, presumably younger bird, with rather small bill and short red frontal shield (Mae Faek, 6 May 2021)
This male from Doi Lo had a relatively small bill and frontal shield. It also had white undertail coverts unlike other individuals in this post (23 June 2021).
At close range, the pale fringes on the underparts can be seen when in fresh plumage (Doi Lo, 23 June 2021)
It was also interesting to observe them while feeding. This male from Doi Lo seemed to love eating the rice grains (23 June 2021).
It often preyed on aquatic items using its bill to pick up the prey while wading through shallow water (Doi Lo, 23 June 2021)
It also take advantage of swimming by picking food items that are out in the deeper edge of the water (Nam Kham Nature Reserve, 15 June 2021)

Another reason why I decided to dedicate more time to photograph the Watercocks is because of its declining population trend. Even though it is still considered as globally least concern, it is clear that the population in Thailand has declined gradually due to hunting pressure. It is one of the most hunted birds in Thailand. Videos of hunting techniques, playbacks and equipment for sale can be found easily online, particularly in YouTube. More serious law enforcement is strongly needed to tackle the hunting issue. In the most recent evaluation of Thai Red List status, the Watercock is now listed as nationally near threatened. I believe that the situation is similar in other ASEAN countries like Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia, where hunting of birds is still widespread. Interestingly, it has also heavily declined in South Korea where it is probably more threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation. With such decline that is happening throughout its distribution, I always try to appreciate every sighting of the Watercock as much as I can. No one knows how long it will remain as a common species in Thailand.

Nam Kham Nature Reserve (14 June 2021)

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