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
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