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The hypnotic corncrake of Tory Island


A pair of Corncrakes

A pair of Corncrakes

RSPB Scotland

A pair of Corncrakes

Tory Island lies about 9 miles off the northwest coast of Donegal – it’s not a big island and you’d be lucky if you found a tree on it.

Tory has a reputation for a lot of things - the swell in Tory Sound is not for the faint-hearted, even on the calmest of days, and can be 50 minutes of hell if you can’t find your sea legs. ‘You might get on but the getting off can be a problem!’ is something you often hear and there is a very real chance you could get stranded if you pick a dodgy day to go. The breeze is an ever-present companion, no matter what corner you try to hide behind, and it can be hard to shake off the uneasy feeling of being stuck on a rock tossed into the Atlantic.

With all this in mind I managed to convince my wife that Tory would be the best place to spend her birthday. Birthday aside I had a secret agenda for coming here -Tory has a reputation for turning up rare birds. There are plenty of birds on Tory anyway – wheatears on popping up on fenceposts, the sounds of annoyed oystercatchers, redshank and lapwing overhead.

In this regard Tory is a gem – a chance to spy upon what bird life in the north of Ireland must have been like a generation ago. Nice as these birds were I couldn’t help feeling deflated that I hadn’t found something strange. I was dragging my heels on the way back to the boat - another day with ‘nothing’ to show for it I thought to myself.

That was until I heard an unmistakable coarse rasping sound from around the corner. A Corncrake! In a tiny field, behind the row of cottages that constitute ‘main street’, and still audible above the sound of a nearby barking dog! Run your thumb repetitively across a comb and you’re nearly there – the sound is rhythmic and hypnotic.

A minute or two later and what looked like a tiny bantam chicken dashed out of the nettles, scuttled across the track, up over the stone wall and away. I knew they were here but I’d almost given up hope of hearing, let alone seeing one. Corncrakes haven’t had much luck in recent decades – formerly widespread the intensification of agriculture sealed their fate and they are now extinct in Northern Ireland. Gone are the days when they kept half the rural population of Ulster awake.

Tory Island is one of the best places left for corncrakes – a haven that allows these long distance migrant birds to hang on for now. So I did get a rarity in the end, ironically, a bird that used to be so common. The real rarity of the day though was my wife enjoying my birdwatching escapades – Corncrakes are cute as well as rare!

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If you would like to report a wildlife sighting visit http://nibirds.blogspot.com/ - the latest online resource for nature lovers in Northern Ireland.

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