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A Little Crake at a little nature reserve


A Little Crake - which is a tiny relative of the Moorhen - feeding in shallow water amongst bent and broken reeds
Little Crake feeding in front of the hide at Linford

It’s a cold November dawn, and seven birders – me included – are sitting in a hide at a tiny nature reserve near Milton Keynes, waiting patiently…..expectantly even. The anticipation is tangible. So is a slight sense of apprehension.


One of our party has two pairs of thermal binoculars which are passed around like a new toy at Christmas (note to self – thermal bins are awesome. It’s like being in the film Predator). I can see heat signatures - red or white blobs that quickly coalesce into shapes of actual birds. Moorhens moving about the reeds, or a Great Crested Grebe swimming sleekly in shallow waters.


But we’re not here for grebes or Moorhens. We’re here for a much rarer bird. A juvenile Little Crake (a tiny relative of the Moorhen) was reported from this site the previous evening. It struck the local birder’s grapevine like a bolt from the blue. Little Crakes are pretty rare in the UK. To potentially have one in our sleepy, unremarkable county is almost beyond belief.


News had leaked out the previous evening. An innocent post on a Facebook group. A photo. A query – “I think I know what this is, but I’m not sure….” But the evidence was already concrete, so there really was no other option – be there for first light the next day. This wasn’t a hoax.


And so we wait. Across the water, the Jackdaws have woken up. Departing their roost, they make their rather appealing yipping calls before scattering towards the surrounding fields where they will feed for the day. A Grey Heron flaps low and lazy across the water, calling as it goes. The rather loud, guttural croak of a heron always seems to come as a rude surprise, effortlessly breaking into one’s thoughts or reveries at the time.


Then after about 25 minutes, a calm yet thrillingly excited voice proclaims “it’s here, right now. Swimming towards us” (yes, crakes can swim). And so began a quite superlative hour, one of my very best in the 40+ years I’ve been birding in Bucks.


A Little Crake - which is a tiny relative of the Moorhen - feeding in shallow water amongst bent and broken reeds

A Little Crake - which is a tiny relative of the Moorhen - swimming in shallow water amongst bent and broken reeds

The Little Crake spent about an hour feeding right in front of the hide, sometimes as near as 10ft away, completely oblivious to the seven pairs of bins peering down at it. Its feeding behaviour was very active, a mix of caution and skittishness. With those long toes possessed by all crake species, it would hesitantly move between semi-submerged rushes and fronds, picking out the best path. But sometimes it would move more swiftly, dashing between reedy clumps, or swimming across little channels. And all the time it was looking for food, sharp, darting head movements to pick tiny insects off the water surface.


Although we all kept fairly quiet, we couldn’t help but make a bit of noise as we bustled about or took photos. But the bird seemed oblivious to our presence, happily feeding away almost within arm’s reach. After an hour, it slunk back into the larger reedbed from whence it originally came. Like most birds, it seemed to have a regular feeding circuit, and during its stay, one could roughly predict when and where it would appear.


So, a few of us eventually left the hide rather exhilarated. But here was the problem – how to get the news out responsibly? And how were we going to manage what would undoubtedly be a large number of visitors to such a tiny reserve?


Linford is owned and managed by the Milton Keynes Parks Trust https://www.theparkstrust.com/.


The reserve (https://www.theparkstrust.com/parks/linford-lakes-nature-reserve) has an intriguing and embattled history – particularly over the last 20 years. But for the last five years or so it's been quietly tucked away, not attracting much attention, visited by a steady stream of permit holders. Most habitat management has been conducted by a committed team of volunteers. The thick reedbed which no doubt attracted the crake has developed rapidly, and is the central location for regular ringing activity, which has shone a fascinating light on just how many birds use the reserve.


What happened next was a testament to the strength of the local birder’s network and the co-operation of the Parks Trust. Accessing Linford is only possible by buying a permit from the Parks Trust (https://theparkstrust.digitickets.co.uk/category/13969). There are entrance gates involved, padlock codes, and keycodes to get into the hides. The decision was made to temporarily open up access to non-permit holders, for the small fee of a fiver.


Visiting arrangements were soon put in place. Alternative car parks found. Maps and access routes made available to visiting birders. Volunteers stepped forward to steward the crowds. And thankfully all visiting birders behaved as impeccably as the Little Crake they had come to see. In fact, many birders bought annual permits for the reserve.


And the result of this impressive logistical operation? Nearly £4000 raised, which is a fantastic sum. And all of it will go towards conservation work on the reserve. And that’s a big deal. I love Linford, I’ve been birding there for 30+ years, but some of the habitat there is looking a little tired and in need of restoration.


So an absolutely huge thank you to everyone involved for organising and running such a successful operation.


The crake did eventually depart after a six-day stay. By its last day – the Saturday – it had become more elusive, the rising water levels pushing it back into the thick reedbed where it could remain largely hidden. Some birders were waiting hours for a sighting.


So where had this bird come from? Little Crakes (https://www.bto.org/understanding-birds/birdfacts/little-crake) breed in the marshes and wetlands of Eastern Europe. They are more or less annual visitors to the UK – maybe one or two per year, at most. But they’re elusive little blighters, so a showy one was always going to be popular.


But there’s another possibility, more remote but infinitely more appealing. For the last couple of years, one or two singing males have been heard in the East Anglian fens. So at the very least, at least one male has been on territory for a prolonged period during the summer. Could this bird be UK bred? We’ll never know. But I like the theory.


We’re now several weeks removed from what was the undoubted highlight of the Bucks birding year. And Linford has returned to the sleepy obscurity which I think suits it better. And if you visited now, you’d be greeted by its usual winter denizens. A handful of Tufted Ducks on the water. Elegant, impossibly bright Great White Egrets squabbling in the reeds. Restless, noisy Fieldfares fleeing from hawthorn bushes at your approach.


And that’s the beauty of birding. The rarest birds can appear anywhere, and even the most unassuming of reserves can enjoy its fleeting moment of fame.


A Little Crake - which is a tiny relative of the Moorhen - feeding in shallow water amongst bent and broken reeds


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Graham Smith
Graham Smith
Dec 08, 2023

Super read super memories

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