Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 26 October 2014

Lonely corncrake halts silage making in Tyrone

A rare bird almost rendered extinct by modern farming methods has become an unexpected but very welcome new tenant at a Co Tyrone farm.

For a lovelorn corncrake has set up a summer home at the farm of Jody McGrath near Benburb, who is only too delighted to relax his tight schedule of silaging to accommodate the visitor, now nearly extinct on these shores.

News of the Benburb bird is one of up to only three reports of a sighting of a corncrake in Northern Ireland this year.

Excited officials from the RSPB have been astounded that the bird has stayed so long and believe it is patiently maintaining a vigil for a mate, the purpose of its sojourn to the lush green lands of Co Tyrone.

Migrating here every spring, the corncrake’s usual habitat is the south Sahara in Africa.

Though modern farming is driven by the tight timetables of seasonal demands, Jody is relaxed about effectively letting out an entire field to accommodate the shy and secretive bird.

“I can mow it later,” he said, happy to stall the cut until the departure of his visitor, which he laments could be “any day now”.

The silage field has lain untouched and unmown since June, when his father-in-law, 86-year-old John Conlon, heard the distinctive sound he’d not heard since he was a much younger man.

And he knew at once it was a corncrake.

He said: “I haven't heard that noise in 40 years and to suddenly hear it on my doorstep one evening was amazing.”

Confirmation was soon made by delighted RSPB officers who have since been out a number of times to hear the loud cry of the bird, which is described as a male caller.

It is from the less than romantic surroundings of the silage field that every night the rare visitor to Northern Ireland commences his incessant and cacophonous call for a mate — from dusk until dawn.

The sound it makes has been compared to a person running their finger very quickly over the teeth of a comb, and its singular song has given the bird its scientific name, ‘Crex Crex’.

“It’s so loud”, revealed Jody, “that neighbours who live three miles away can hear it.”

He said he can’t help but pity the poor bird whose nocturnal appeals will surely remain unrequited. “The chances of a female landing here are as little as next to none,” he said.

Every night since the rare bird arrived on the farm it has become the focus of much attention, with cars arriving as night falls to catch the bird’s captivating call.

“People are parking their cars along the roadside to hear it and they’ve come from as far as Antrim and Fermanagh,” he said.

However, no-one has ever caught sight of the would-be lothario.

Claire Barnett is one very excited farmland bird recovery officer with the RSPB.

“None have ever stayed for so long,” she said. “This has been an extremely rare case.”

One bird was reported in the Ballygalley area of Co Antrim in May, and another in Castlerock around the same time, she confirmed, though she conceded it could have been the same bird.

Claire added that she’s been struck by the strategy the McGrath corncrake has apparently adopted to attract a mate.

Revealing that it has made its home at the top of a hill at the farm, she said: “We thought it was so obvious it was up there to enable its voice to carry as far as possible.”

And while she’s confident he’ll be back next year, she thinks he might even have been born there too.

Factfile

In the last 30 years the number of corncrakes has declined dramatically across Northern Ireland due to the modern face of farming. The rise in the use of mowing machines has led to the bird often meeting a bloody end. With numbers down so significantly, the bird is on the verge of extinction here. Since 2008 there have been only two confirmed pairs of corncrakes within our shores.

Standing about 10 inches tall, corncrakes have a mottled buff brown plumage, speckled grey head and neck, with black streaks on their back. During flight, bright chestnut patches are visible on their wings and both sexes look almost identical, with the male having less grey in the plumage.

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