Tom Parkinson's monthly column, introducing the diverse range of flora and fauna on show at Sanctuary Lakes.

Rails are a worldwide family of small to medium sized, and somewhat chicken shaped, ground living birds. They tend to have short wings and tail, with large feet and long toes. The name Rail is derived from the French word rale which describes the families common yet variant, loud, harsh cry. The Rail’s Australian family branch are especially fond of living in damp environments close to and within marshlands, ponds, wetland and lakes.

Sanctuary Lakes has four different species of Rail Birds as permanent residents. Like all Rail Birds, their common features, quirky walk and paddling style can make it confusing at first sight to recognise the differences. But when you see some of them together, as sometimes happens, the difference between the species becomes obvious and simple to see.

Eurasian Coot Fulica atra

The most persistently common member of the Rail family in the Sanctuary Lakes area is the Eurasian Coot. Easily recognisable by his dominant white crown and beak. They can almost always be seen, in large flocks, on our Lake. We have discussed Coots previously in Natures Rubik. The Eurasian Coot and Silver Gulls (attached below).

Purple Swamphen Porphyrio porphyrio

When you are walking around the Estate and by chance you think you have seen a strange purple, turkey like chicken, passing by. What you’ve actually seen, is a Purple Swamphen.

The Purple Swamphen is Sanctuary Lake’s largest Rail Bird with a very distinctive heavy red bill and forehead shield. They have red eyes and a deep blue head and breast, with black upper parts and wings. In bright sunlight the plumage shines with an intense blue sheen.

Long reddish legs with long slender unwebbed toes help it walk and feed in shallow water. They have a white undertail that is exposed when they flick their tail up and down. The entire combination is dazzling when seen ambling across our sunlit grassy knolls.

You are likely to view the Swamphen around the edges of our ponds, the lake and in the vicinity of Skeleton Creek. In fact, anywhere there’s shallow water surrounded by dense reeds and rushes. Here they can find food and build nests for breeding. The diet of the Purple Swamphen includes the soft shoots of reeds and rushes and small animals, such as frogs and snails. Purple Swamphens are proficient swimmers, but prefer to wander on the edges of the water, among reeds and on floating vegetation.

For such a bulky bird, the Swamphen is also an accomplished flier and will readily take to the air to escape danger. In flight, the long legs and elongated toes trail behind or hang underneath the body.

Over the years small groups of Swamphens have taken up residency around several of Sanctuary Lakes ponds. Studies have shown that these small groups consist of more males than females. More than one male will mate with a single female. All family members, and occasionally the young from a previous brood, share in incubation and care of the young. The nest consists of a platform of trampled reeds with the surrounding vegetation sometimes being used to form a shelter. Often two broods will be raised in a year.

The Dusky Moorhen - Gallinula tenebrosa

Although similar in size, shape and colour to the Eurasian Coot the Dusky Moorhen can be easily distinguished by its reddish-orange shield on its forehead, a bright-red beak with a canary-yellow tip, red legs and red or orange toes that have yellow fringes. Which makes a simple contrast to the Eurasians Coot’s white bill and face shield and greyish legs.

The Dusky Moorhen is smaller than the Purple Swamphen and both have red beaks but they are easily recognised by the difference in beak size. The Swamphen’s being larger than the more pointed Moorhen’s beak. They both have a similar handful of white feathers on their undertail. These are flashed conspicuously by the Moorhen, who when alarmed will spread its tail and flick it up and down rapidly. Also, unlike the Swamphen, the Moorhens have short rounded wings and are weak fliers.

The Dusky Moorhen feeds on algae, water plants and grasses, as well as seeds, fruits, molluscs and other invertebrates. It will also eat carrion (dead animals) and the droppings of other birds. They do not dive when feeding with their tails always visible above the water when upended.

During breeding season (August to January), the Dusky Moorhen forms small breeding groups of two to seven birds, with all members defending the territory, building nests and looking after young. The shallow platform nests are made of reeds and other water plants. Like some others in the Rail Family two broods per year are normal.

Spotless Crake Porzana tabuensis

The Spotless Crake is the smallest of Sanctuary Lakes resident Rail birds. A bluish–grey slate coloured head, and neck, which transitions to a blackish–grey on the underside of the tail feathers. Its small pointed bill is black, but its standout feature are its eyes which are a startlingly bright deep red and its reddish–pink coloured long legs and large feet.

The Spotless Crake can be seen on the well vegetated edges of our ponds and lake. A small secretive bird it often hides among dense growths of plants such as saltbush, reeds, rushes and mangroves. Occasionally it is seen paddling on the lake often within a group of Coots. Due to its small size it can be mistaken for a juvenile Coot, but its bright Red eyes make it instantly recognisable and if standing by the water’s edge those long pinkish red legs and feet.

Breeding is between August and December. The nest of rushes and soft grass are made by a single male and female. Built by them in dense waterside vegetation. Both assist in incubating and rearing a single annual clutch of between two and five chicks.

Sanctuary Lake’s Rail birds are common and just like our Cormorants the different species mix with one another. So, enjoy the satisfying fun of spotting the different red and white beaks, with red eyes and purple heads and the flashing white tails.

The Eurasian Coot and Silver Gulls

Silver Gulls enjoying a fresh water puddle after a downpour

Bob Winters, in his excellent spotter's list of birds observed in Sanctuary Lakes, Skeleton Creek and Cheetham Wetlands, names over a hundred and twenty different birds residing in our area. To save us having to purchase expensive large binoculars and spend hours in hides balancing cameras with 300mm lenses, I thought this Rubik should look at probably the most common of the birds in our district - the "Silver Gull" and "Eurasian Coot". Each has an interesting back story, each is its own way very social, each can be aggressive to one another yet each is extremely successful at cohabitating with humans.

The Silver Gull (Chroicochepalus novaehollandiae) has a white head, body and tail with light grey and white mottled wings, and black tips on its tail and wings. Adults range from 40 cm to 45 cm in length. They have bright red beaks - the brighter the red, the older the bird. Silver Gulls are found along the entire Australian coast but seldom venture far out to sea. They are essentially a coastal bird rarely seen far from land that feeds mainly on plankton and other small marine animals, but more importantly, they also scavenge and have learnt to exploit human activities. They are familiar birds at rubbish dumps, sewerage outfalls, public parks, sea-fronts and lake-fronts. Because of this, their numbers have increased rapidly with the increase in the human population. In Sanctuary Lakes, they can be seen readily pestering humans for handouts of bread scraps and pilfering from unattended food containers.

Silver Gulls are gregarious but also very aggressive. When feeding, their social instincts are over-ridden by the competition for food and dominant birds establish a pecking order, driving off rivals that come too close.

But Silver Gulls also have a mystery. During the day you can see flocks around the lake and on the fringes of the golf course but it is very rare to see any in the evening or at night. Although pugnacious and daring when feeding, they are cautious and wary when roosting and will fly considerable distances to roost in areas that are surrounded by water so that they are safe from land predators. Silver Gulls are rarely seen around the district at sunrise. Most of the flocks fly to places like the Werribee Tip to scavenge for breakfast. Flocks will arrive at the Sanctuary Lakes area about two hours after sunrise. It is not known if these flocks are daily inhabitants or that their move here is related to where their morning scavenge has taken place. It is known that Silver Gulls will fly over 150 km to scavenge and roost and although the evidence is limited, they are probably not permanent residents at their day retreats.

Silver Gulls can breed at any time but usually between August and November. They nest in large colonies on offshore islands. Often two broods will be raised in a year and both adults share nest-building, incubation and feeding duties. Eggs are laid in very shallow nests, lined with vegetation.

The success of Silver Gulls adaptation to living and scavenging with human communities has created problems. With increased availability of food in the form of refuse, the population of Silver Gulls has exploded, and offshore islands which once supported small breeding colonies are now over-run. With so many gulls dominating these breeding islands, it is becoming increasingly difficult for terns and other seabirds to breed there. Do we let nature take its course or do we start to cull the Gulls?

Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra)

The Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra) is one of the persistently most common waterfowl in the Sanctuary Lakes area. Like the Gulls, Coots are often very aggressive towards each other but with the exception of their breeding season, they generally appear to ignore or get on with other species. Like the Gulls, they too have a night mystery.

Although Eurasian Coots are established in many parts of the world, our Coots are distinctly an Australian variety - a plain dark grey bantam-sized bird with a black head, red eyes and a pure white beak and frontal shield. It is this white frontal shield that is responsible for the saying "as bald as a coot". Remember it is only in recent decades that bald has meant "hairless". Its original meaning was "white-headed".

The Australian Eurasian Coots feed almost entirely on vegetable matter, supplemented with only a few insects, worms and fish. Their main food of sea and water weed is mainly obtained from under water, starting with a very distinctive skyward jump, then a plunge to an underwater dive that can last up to 20 seconds and ranging down to 7 m in depth. Birds also graze for seeds on the land and on the surface of the water.

Eurasian Coots breed at any time that conditions are favourable and may produce successive broods. During the breeding season, pairs establish and maintain territories with vigour. Their aggression is also extended towards other species. Nests of ducks are often seized and used as roosting sites, the unfortunate owner's eggs being pushed off into the water. Young ducks and grebes are sometimes killed. The nest is often a floating raft of vegetation or is built on logs or tree stumps that are surrounded by water. Both sexes share incubation and care of the young. If food becomes scarce, the young birds may be killed by the parents.

Most of the ponds on the golf course have Coot's nests during the breeding season. On the second hole's pond is a reasonably large floating nest which is regularly used by Coots for nesting.

Coots prefer to paddle off when disturbed, but if suddenly surprised will skitter across the top of the water with their legs on or just above the surface, before folding their wings and gliding back into the water further away. When actually flying, which tends to happen at night, they hold their legs out behind them. Coots frequently travel en masse overnight, so can appear or disappear in places unnoticed by humans. Sometimes in order to escape their main predators - hawks, eagles and foxes - they will, after sunset, mass as a flock of up 200 birds into what looks like a small, swirling, black island barge of birds in the middle of the lake. The conditions, predator or weather that cause this strange manoeuvre remains a mystery.

Even though our Gulls and Coots are extremely populous, there is a lot we do not know about them. We don't even know if the birds we see daily are residents or nomadic. If they are nomadic, which a slight majority of experts believe, where do they come from and where do they go?