Thursday, 30 May 2013

The curse of the corncrake

I first heard a distant corncrake in the late 1970's- a single bird calling from a cereal crop field in Dorset on a lovely late spring evening. Naturally the field was vast and there was no way I was ever going to see the bird but it was a lovely experience. Fast forward 30 years or so and I found myself in the outer Hebrides for the first time in June 2000 for a fly fishing holiday on the island of South Uist. I caught a few trout, enjoyed a few drams and heard a lot of corncrakes- they were everywhere it seemed, with birds calling from every strip of grass, every patch of nettles and every drainage channel full of flag irises. After dinner, most evenings I would pick up my binoculars and try and stalk a bird in the hope of seeing one. When a bird called I took a few very slow, quiet steps along the adjacent tracks towards it, waited patiently when it stopped it's monotonous 'crex crex'  call, then repeated the process- over and over and over again! Often I felt as if I was tantalisingly close to the bird, only for it to evaporate through the vegetation and then start calling much further away. The task was exasperated by the way in which the bird would be able to 'throw' it's voice, often aided by swirling air currents- sometimes giving the impression that the bird was much closer than it probably was. Initially this was just a bit of birding fun- but I needed to see a corncrake before I could add it to my 'life list'. Anyway, the holiday ended and I still needed to tick off a corncrake. Since 2000 I have visited South Uist on 6 or 7 occasions and have also visited North Uist, Benbecula and had several extended visits to Lewis- all these islands holding good numbers of corncrakes in the summer months. I have spent countless hours over the last decade or so on each of these visits trying to see this wretched bird with the 'fun' going out of the encounters many moons ago. Recently I returned to Lewis to spend a few days birding at Eorpie, port of Nis and the Butt of Lewis. On the first evening I heard a corncrake calling from the edge of loch Stiapabhat. I enjoyed views of garganey, gadwall and a black-tailed godwit and tried to ignore the rather annoying 'crex crex' call. The following day as well as enjoying some decent weather and good birding, a couple more corncrakes were heard- but I had given up trying to see one. A day later I stopped to try and get some phone signal near the tea room when yet another corncrake started calling from a patch of rough vegetation. I checked my sms rare bird alerts, casually strolled towards the vegetation and to my disbelief a corncrake lifted its' head above the leaves and launched itself into the air- it flew quite high past one of the crofts giving good flight views and leaving me once again totally bemused at the ups and downs of birding. Later I had the added bonus of a glaucous gull and a fantastic experience when an adult long-tailed skua settled on the rough pasture just west of the lighthouse- happy birding days indeed!


  1. Cracking post Andy, laugh out loud moment when you changed from the thrill and expectation of seeing the corncrake, to total disgust and trying to ignore the calls!!

    1. Thanks Dave, glad you enjoyed the post! Hopefully I will get the chance of further entertaining posts as I still have heaps of good birds that I need to connect with.