It's that time of the year again when we look forward to hearing the first Corncrakes arrive here at RSPB Balranald on the Isle of North Uist. We usually hear them before we see them!
These members of the "Rail" family can be elusive and secretive, preferring the cover of long grasses but here in the Outer Hebrides, particularly at Balranald, you stand a very good chance of seeing them. Sometimes when you least expect it!
Corncrakes breed across Europe and central Asia as far east as Western China. In the UK they breed in Scotland and RSPB Balranald provides the ideal habitat for them. They tend to nest in semi-open habitats and here they nest on the Machair. Their diet consists of insects and seeds.
The males tend to arrive about now towards the end of April and they find a territory to start calling for a mate. They are sequentially polygynous so when they have found a mate they will move away from the first nest and start calling for a second female to breed with.
The females incubate and rear the young in a concealed nest. She lays an egg a day in early May, up to 8-12 eggs in total. The incubation period is 16-19 days. The eggs all hatch at once and the young are ready to leave the nest when only a few days old. They can fend for themselves at 10-15 days old at which point the female may have a second brood.
Historically their numbers declined massively due to a loss of habitat but here on North Uist the sympathetic management of the machair by the local crofters and the RSPB has helped them to recover.
In 1993 it was estimated there were only 480 calling males in the UK , by 2008 this had increased to 1,140 and hopefully the numbers will continue to increase. They remain on the red list of birds of high conservation concern and in the UK have schedule 1 legal protection. It is therefore an offence to take, injure or kill a corncrake or to disturb or destroy the nest.
In August and September our Corncrakes will leave and start their migration to sub-saharan Africa via western France. In the meantime we can enjoy listening to their distinctive calls on beautiful summer mornings and in the evenings before sunset. We will enjoy our time looking for them from the garden and when walking on the reserve and when they are ready they will show themselves. often when we least expect it.
So if you come to see them here on North Uist always keep your camera ready to grab and if you're as lucky as one of our guests last year you might find one on the doorstep when you open your front door!