DAYS are getting shorter and East Lothian has started its transformation into living art: yellow, orange and crimson splash the parks and gardens as deciduous trees with an autumnal tint start shedding their leaves, decorating the ground.

I can feel true cold in the air and I am looking forward to photographing the common moorhen – a plump bird with an autumnal beak.

The moorhen is a familiar waterbird that can be found skulking around water bodies or foraging on grassy margins. Thanks to its large yellow legs, orange beak with yellow tip and black round body, a moorhen can be easily identified. Female moorhens look much like a male but are generally smaller, so it can be harder to tell them apart unless you see the pair together.

Moorhens are omnivores, which means that they feed on everything from snails and small fish to seeds and berries. They are not particularly shy birds but, once disturbed, they rapidly hide in nearby vegetation or take off to the air. If the latter happens, their flight is stunted and heavy as moorhens are not good fliers – their wings are short and rounded, and flight muscles weak.

Moorhens can easily be found across most of the UK, which sometimes makes them an undervalued bird. I find them a fine subject to watch and photograph, especially during the breeding season when the birds show off their rather romantic courtship – the male swims towards the female with its beak in the water until the pair eventually starts nibbling at each other’s feathers. Occasionally, the male brings the female water weeds and fans out his tail to show off!

After reinforcing the bond, both birds build their scruffy nest using dead vegetation and twigs. Moorhens are also strongly territorial and often engage in fighting with competitors, which creates opportunities for dramatic behavioural photographs.

Every year, moorhens rebuild their nests on the small islands on the Esk where they lay eggs. Due to thick vegetation, it is tricky to see them but their loud “kirr-up” call often gives away their presence.

Once the chicks have hatched, they run about with an incredibly funny look: their legs are too big for the rest of their body and their pink head sports a few tiny sticky-up black feathers. When I look at young moorhens, they sometimes look like the original ‘ugly ducklings’.

Last year, I observed rather unusual behaviour in moorhens when the chicks from the first brood stayed around a bit longer than they were supposed to and helped to look after their siblings from the next brood. The more food available in the area, the more likely it is for the young birds to stay around the parents.

Speak to you next time!