Good weather sees corncrake calling on Rathlin Island two weeks early

Corncrake SM Farm

For the fifth year in a row, a calling corncrake has been heard on Rathlin Island.

The bird was heard in the Church Bay area of the island last weekend – a couple of weeks earlier than usual and in nettle beds specifically created by RSPB NI staff and volunteers to attract corncrakes.

The corncrake is one of our rarest birds and is a red-listed species (a bird of high conservation concern) – and Rathlin is the only place in Northern Ireland where they have been heard or seen in recent years.

RSPB NI warden Liam McFaul has confirmed the bird’s presence after an island resident was the first to hear the distinctive ‘crex-crex’ call in a field behind their house.

The conservation charity has been working hard for years to create the perfect habitat for corncrakes in field margins on the island.

This has involved working with a dedicated team of RSPB volunteers – who have been digging nettles and cutting back scrub – for more than 10 years.

Each winter the volunteers dig up nettle rhizomes – usually in County Antrim or County Down – before the rhizomes are transported to Rathlin, where they grow early in the season and this encourages the birds to come in and settle within them.

While there are travel restrictions in place all over the world at present, this thankfully doesn’t extend to birds! And so corncrakes migrate north from western Africa each summer and they will make the return journey in August or September – hopefully after a successful breeding season.

Last summer two pairs of the rare ground-nesting birds were recorded on the island for first time in 30 years, with the movements of one of the males indicating that he potentially had two female partners.

Liam McFaul said it was fitting to hear about the corncrake calling on International Dawn Chorus Day last Sunday and says it would be fantastic if more than one calling male was heard this summer.

“This really is fantastic news to be able to share,” said Liam. “Good weather this year will probably have helped the bird’s early return.

“And as there’s a good chance that it’s the same breeding bird that was in the area last year, it knew exactly where to return to.

“Rathlin is a safe place for us to try and attract the birds to. The landowners on the island manage their land sympathetically for wildlife; and along with the other islanders they are as delighted as we are to hear that these loved but at-risk birds are back.

“We would love to see their numbers increasing now and get a sustainable population, with four or five pairs regularly breeding.

“With two pairs last year and one bird returning so early now, this could be a really significant year for these birds.

“I’d also like to thank all of our volunteers who are so crucial in helping with our corncrake habitat work.”

Corncrakes like to settle in early growing tall vegetation like nettles, cow parsley and irises.

The secretive birds – which are only a little bigger than blackbirds – are related to moorhens, coots and rails, but differ from most members of the family in that they live on dry land.

They can also be found on the Western Isles of Scotland, parts of western Ireland and on Tory Island in County Donegal.

Their numbers have been in sharp decline since the 1980s. By 1989 they had stopped returning to Rathlin on their migratory route from Africa as a regular breeder.

They have turned up sporadically since then, but now at least one calling male has been heard for the fifth year in a row.

n Because of the current Covid-19 restrictions, the RSPB Rathlin West Light Seabird Centre has remained closed to the public and transport to Rathlin is restricted for residents and essential travel only, so while people aren’t able to take in the spectacular seabird colony at present, the corncrake’s return is a good news story for nature.

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