Belfast Telegraph

At last, Rathlin awakens to the mating call of the corncrake after 10 years

By Linda Stewart

A corncrake has been heard calling on Rathlin Island for the first time in more than 10 years.

The distinctive rasping crex-crex call was first heard close to Church Bay last Thursday and the male bird was still calling after the Bank Holiday weekend, raising hopes that it may have found a mate rather than giving up and going elsewhere.

Corncrakes have been extinct as a breeding species in Northern Ireland since the 1990s, but the RSPB has been battling to lure the secretive species back to Rathlin, with volunteers planting nettles that will provide protective cover in early spring. Corncrakes still survive on some of the western Scottish islands not far from Rathlin and on Donegal islands.

Warden Liam McFaul said that if the bird managed to attract a mate and successfully rear a clutch of fledglings, they should return to Rathlin next spring, following a long migration to West Africa, as it will be imprinted on them as their home.

"It's probably 10 or 15 years since we've heard a corncrake calling on Rathlin Island, but we've been working over those years at habitat creation," he said.

"What they like is long, tall vegetation that they can come and hide in early in the season when the meadows aren't tall enough. We've been planting specific things that will grow quickly.

"On Thursday morning I had a phone call from my brother who lives close to the field. I dropped everything and ran over to the field. They don't call continuously and they tend to call more at night, but after 10 minutes it started calling, enough to make sure it was a corncrake.

"Since then I've been monitoring it day and night to work out the pattern of calling. I'm building up a picture of its behaviour from its calling pattern which is analysed against statistics from more settled populations.

"It doesn't sleep and I don't get the chance to sleep either – I'm up half the night!

"It's brilliant – we have put so much work and time into it." There is a brief window from April to May for the corncrake to attract a mate, but if he successfully breeds with a passing female, they could go on to lay a second clutch later in the summer.

But the birds are so hard to spot and the risk of disturbance is so great it could be extremely difficult to verify if this bird makes a successful breeding attempt, bringing the species back from extinction in Northern Ireland.

"These things scurry around like mice and the last thing we want to do is cause any disturbance," Mr McFaul said. "At this stage of the season, he's cutting it fine if he hasn't found a mate. If they stay around for three or more days it's a good sign and this one has been calling since Thursday."

The rasping call of the corncrake was a familiar night-time sound throughout the Irish countryside only a generation ago. Now the bird is extinct in Northern Ireland and restricted to a few strongholds in the Republic. The dramatic decline of this species is linked to changes in agricultural practices, notably the switch from hay to early-cut silage.

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