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Issue 17 - A great deal to shout about

Scotland Magazine Issue 17
November 2004

 

This article is 13 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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A great deal to shout about

Graham Holliday explains where you can hear and perhaps see – the shy and elusive corncrake

The corncrake is one of Britain’s most vocal, yet most elusive birds. Its repetitive, rasping calls were once heard all over the Scottish countryside, but changes in farming methods and the destruction of much needed cover means the din of calling male corncrakes has become a rare event in the countryside.

However, the situation is starting to look up for this dry-land dwelling relative of the moorhen. 2004 was a record year for corncrakes in the United Kingdom. More than 800 calling males were heard, an increase of 140 from 2002 and the highest number since surveys began in 1977.

In Scotland, the Isle of Tiree is home to the UK’s largest single population of corncrakes. RSPB warden John Bowler, who has lived and worked on Tiree for three years, recorded 262 calling males in 2004.

“Tiree has always been good for corncrakes. The rocks, irises and reeds provide cover even when agriculture is more intensive,” he says.

Crofters on the island, and elsewhere in Scotland, are encouraged to join the Scottish Crofting Foundation sponsored ‘Corncrake Initiative’. Participation in the scheme means crofters have to cut their crop later than usual and in a ‘corncrake-friendly’ manner – from the inside out – which reduces the risk of trapping and harming young during harvest time.

This allows the birds to continue brooding their young for much longer.

The crofter’s silage suffers from this late cutting, but they are compensated for this with payments from the scheme.

“The crofters are happy to do it and help out,” says Bowler. “The older crofters can remember large numbers of corncrakes when they were young and are happy to hear them beginning to return in numbers.”

If modern farming methods have conspired against the corncrake, the bird’s own life cycle doesn’t do it any favours either. The reason being that corncrakes live for just over a year. This may also explain why they breed so aggressively in the summer. They can have up to three broods in one season laying between eight to 10 eggs of which five to 10 will hatch successfully.

With luck, corncrakes can be seen, but bear in mind that they are notoriously secretive and difficult to spot as they are well camouflaged – you are far more likely to hear them.

Tiree might boast the biggest numbers, but corncrakes are on the increase on the islands of Iona, Coll, Benbecula, Lewis, Skye and there are a few on Islay.

Surveys on the largely flat, machair-covered island of Tiree are conducted between midnight and 3am and it takes three nights to survey the entire island. Unlike other parts of Scotland, notably Shetland and Orkney – where groups of hardcore birders help out with spotting and number surveys on a voluntary basis – John Bowler currently does all the survey work himself.

Of Britain’ nesting birds, the corncrake is the most threatened.

“June is the best month to hear them,” adds Bowler. “Although they arrive as early as late April from sub-Saharan Africa. In May the vegetation is still quite low and the males are more prone to show themselves as they call for a mate. They stop calling at the end of July and it’s virtually impossible to see them from then on.” The birds leave in August and September.

INFORMATION
Places to see and hear Corncrakes

All over Tiree – although there is no RSPB reserve on the island they can be easily heard

RSPB Balranald,
Nr Bayhead, North Uist
Reserve – open at all times; visitor centre – April to August, 9am to 6pm.
Tel: +44 (0)1876 560 287

RSPB Coll, Near Arinagour,
Isle of Coll
Open at all times.
Although visitors should avoid walking through fields of hay and crops
Tel: +44 (0)1879 230 301

RSPB Islay,
Loch Gruinart, Islay
Reserve open at all times; visitor centre – April to October 10am to 5pm.
November to March 10am to 4pm.
Tel: +44 (0)1496 850 505

HOW TO GET THERE:
Visit the Caledonian Macbrayne website for sailing times to Scotland’s islands: www.calmac.co.uk

For more information and train tickets visit: www.scotrail.co.uk

Tickets can also be purchased from ScotRail Telesales tel: +44 (0)8457 550 033; staffed railway stations throughout Britain; rail-appointed travel agents and BritRail outlets in Europe and North America

NB: the Scotrail franchise is taken over on Sunday 17 October and the email and websites will change. There will, I am sure, be an overlap period, but it would be good to get it right.

BALoganair also fly to Tiree and Islay. Check shedules and prices at: www.ba.com

For more information on corncrakes including sound and video files, visit the RSPB website: www.rspb.org.uk

For details of the Corncrake Initiative visit : http://www.snh.org.uk/about/ab-pa09d.asp