Get out of the city and into na­ture with Roger Har­ri­son

My in­ter­est in na­ture be­gan watch­ing ducks and grebes with my dad, and has con­tin­ued over the last 12 years via weekly visit to Welsh Harp Lake in my lunch breaks. I’ve been amazed at what can be ex­pe­ri­enced to close to the North Cir­cu­lar, Brent Cross and

Harefield Gazette - - LEISURE -

ANY visit to Welsh Harp Lake will be ac­com­pa­nied by the trills, metal­lic clicks and squab­blings of coots and moorhens But which is which? In the­ory it’s very sim­ple: while sim­i­lar, each has a con­trast­ing patch of colour on the front of its head, the coot’s white, the moorhen’s red and yel­low.

My dad taught me this when I was five, but hav­ing wan­dered away from na­ture for a while, I of­ten mixed them up.

The sim­i­lar­ity comes from the fact that they are re­lated, but while the coot is all black, the moorhen is less uni­form with a dark brown back, ris­ing to to­wards the tail, on the un­der­neath of which are no­tice­able white patches, whereas the coot ta­pers away to­wards the wa­ter.

On a big lake coots might be more im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent as they’re happy out in the mid­dle and can be very, and audi­bly quar­rel­some.

Two or more ri­vals will con­duct a face-off, parad­ing round each other with heads low­ered al­most onto the sur­face and feath­ers and tails raised such that they take on an al­most tri­an­gu­lar ap­pear­ance.

This sort of in­tim­i­da­tion to re­solve dis­putes is com­mon in many an­i­mals and avoid un­nec­es­sary fights.

Coots how­ever seem to have by­passed this idea and would fit in well out­side cer­tain pubs af­ter clos­ing time, quickly mov­ing to bouts of chas­ing or all out com­bat, lean­ing back and kick­ing each other with their feet. And im­pres­sive feet they are, ide­ally suited to walk­ing on the soft mud of lake or river banks, with long splayed-out toes to spread their weight.

In coots they are blue-grey and part-webbed for the pad­dling re­quired by their open-wa­ter pref­er­ences, with moorhens hav­ing strik­ing green legs and feet with no web­bing as they stay closer to the shore. When undis­turbed, these can be eas­ily seen as both birds will come out of the wa­ter to look for food on the banks, skit­ter­ing back to safety when ap­proached.

The coot is also known from the say­ing “as bald as a coot” which seems odd as it’s not. How­ever the “bald” here is old Eng­lish mean­ing “marked with white”, and refers to its white head mark­ing. The same is true of the Amer­i­can bald ea­gle which has a full head of feath­ers, all of which are white. Sadly you’re un­likely to see one of these at Welsh Harp Lake, but coots and moorhens are a near cer­tainty.

See­ing new or rare things is great, but we also need to value the com­mon, as if not then these can soon be­come the rare, to the detri­ment of all.

n WHICH IS WHICH?: A moorhen, top, can be in­den­ti­fied from the red and yel­low mark­ings on the frnt its head while the coot, be­low, has a white streak Photo: Don­ald Ma­cauley

Photo: Duhon

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