It's that time of the year again when we anticipate the first Corncrakes arriving here to RSPB Balranald on the Isle of North Uist. We usually hear them before we see them and so it was this year!
Ten days ago my husband said he thought he had heard the first Corncrake calling it's distinctive "Crex Crex" call. I listened carefully but it didn't sound quite right. The call was less harsh, slightly more "sing songy" and not as loud. We realised then that the Starlings we have nesting in the eaves had started to add the Corncrake's call to their repertoire. Amazing to think they know that the Corncrakes are about to arrive!
A week later we heard the "real" call of a Corncrake on a glorious evening and the next day couldn't believe our eyes when we saw a Corncrake walking across the lawn to the fence. It skulked along the fence backward and forward and then disappeared into the bushes. Perhaps it was feeding or looking for somewhere to nest. The only camera I had to hand was on an iPad, so I grabbed a short video - see below, just to capture some footage of the first Corncrake in the garden for 2020.
These members of the "Rail" family can be elusive and secretive, as this bird is, preferring the cover of long grasses. However, here in the Outer Hebrides, particularly at Balranald, you stand a very good chance of seeing them, often when you least expect it! More and more of these distinctive birds will arrive over the course of the next week or so and we will enjoy their arrival as the breeding season takes off. Hopefully this year will be a good year for them as the reserve is much quieter than usual due to the coronavirus lockdown in the UK.
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 in North Uist they nest on the Machair. Their diet consists of insects and seeds.
The males tend to arrive 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 the highest level of 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 in the garden and when walking on the reserve. When they are ready they will show themselves, often when we least expect it.
If you come to see Corncrakes here on North Uist, always keep your camera ready. 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!