Spotted Crakes have been appearing at some of their usual haunts over the last week or so, with the first birds arriving towards the end of April. Often the only indication of their presence is the far-carrying nocturnal ‘whipping’ song of the male. Spotted Crakes return earlier in spring than perhaps many people expect. In the Mediterranean countries, the peak of passage is in late March and in the Netherlands, they can be present and singing from the first week of April if the weather is right. Birds singing later in spring (May/June) may be arriving from breeding areas elsewhere in Europe.
Spotted Crakes breed on lowland fen-like or marshy wetland habitats with shallow fresh water interspersed with extensive stands of low plant cover, rich in invertebrates. They favour areas of sedge, rush, grass and reed with 10-20 cm of water over up to half of their territory. Lightly managed areas, either by occasional cutting or grazing (outside the breeding season) are preferred as they maintain an open-structured vegetation. On one reserve, where occupied areas were ‘protected’ by removing all grazing, such areas were subsequently deserted, presumably as the vegetation became too dense.
Annual occupancy of sites and singing behaviour are still poorly understood in the Spotted Crake. Certainly there seems to be considerable annual variation in numbers at regular sites, with some evidence that this is at least partly related to site condition, particularly water levels. Checking out a couple of regular sites this week, conditions looked poor with very low water levels. The annual recorded total of 10-30 singing birds is probably an under-estimate. So if you know a suitably wet marshy site, get out over the next week or so and listen from sunset until past midnight, ideally on a warm, dry and calm night. Go on, get out for a whipping.
Pics above - Spotted Crake feeding in typical shallow water, marshy habitat. Lower: another regular site, but too dry this year.