We’ve been working hard for years on Rathlin Island to create habitat that’s just right for shy, secretive corncrakes. And this spring, we have some good news! Warden Liam McFaul explains all...
‘It’s been two weeks since the call of a corncrake was first reported on the island and when I went down in the evening to check for myself I heard its unmistakable call.
‘Since then, the corncrake has been calling in short bursts at night time, so we’re hopeful that it is keeping itself occupied.
The magic ingredient? Nettles!
‘It’s only the second time in 10 years that a corncrake has started calling on Rathlin Island. We’ve been working for many years to create favourable habitat for corncrakes, cultivating areas to grow the early cover of tall vegetation that they seek following their migration from Africa.
‘Growth on the island can be a bit slower than on the mainland so the nettles which we plant in the winter into spring are ideal, as they’re fast-growing and attract caterpillars and other invertebrates.
‘We encourage the nettles to grow using farm manure and old rotten silage. In other areas of the island we grow plants that are left to seed over winter. What we grow this year will be cover for any corncrakes next year. Over winter the seeds are beneficial for the likes of goldfinches, linnets and twites.
‘The nettle-growing habitat creation first started in Scotland to increase numbers of corncrakes and the successful practice was then introduced here.
(here's a library clip of a corncrake giving its distinctive call)
Nearly gone from Northern Ireland
‘Sadly, within a generation, the corncrake has been virtually wiped out in Northern Ireland, largely due to changes in agricultural practices. The last reported breeding pair in Northern Ireland was in the late 1990s.
‘Islay is only 20 miles away and home to good numbers of corncrakes. They also settle 25 miles west of us on County Donegal’s Inishowen peninsula, which really isn’t a great distance for these birds, considering their African migration.
‘What’s tricky is that corncrakes are ‘site-faithful’, returning to where they have imprinted as home. For us to attract young males to establish new territory on Rathlin Island we have to make sure that the habitat that we create is super-duper, the best of the best. You know the saying, ‘if you build it, they will come.‘
‘If a pair of corncrakes is successful, we would know around the middle of June. A pair would usually go on to have a second brood of chicks in quick succession. It’s a waiting game but so far the signs are there.’
At this time of year we can enjoy one of nature’s miracles every morning: the finest sopranos, tenors and baritones warming up their voices for the greatest concert on earth - the dawn chorus.
Here’s the ‘who’s who’ in the choir so you can learn to identify the singers which make their homes on your patch!
Act one: robins and dunnocks
Act two: blackbirds, song thrushes and skylarks
Act three: chiffchaff, chaffinch, wood pigeon, and collared dove
Act four: blue tits, long tailed tit, great tit, goldcrest and tree sparrows
Dunnock: Credit John Bridges (rspb-images.com)
Dunnocks and robins are among the earliest to warm up: to hear the first act you’ll need to be in the stalls early as they start to sing about an hour before sunrise.
Blackbirds and song thrushes come hot their heels, probably because the ground is wetter in the morning so worms are more active and the ground is softer.
Finally, contributing to the crescendo, wrens, tits and warblers come in, with the tiny call of the goldcrest on the stage too. These later arrivals to the choral scene eat insects and are perhaps more sensitive to the coldness of dawn.
Goldcrest: Credit Tim Ryan
Unbeknown to many there is also an evening performance, with a chorus at dusk, but it’s much quieter, and it’s easier to hear birds like blue tits and tree sparrows. They sing in the morning too, but we are less likely to notice them among the cacophony!
The dawn chorus may sound like a frantic shouting match with the most beautiful voices but actually the singers know exactly when their slot is and if you listen regularly you will start to recognise certain species habitually starting before others.
If you don’t know what those species are now it’s your chance to learn even just a couple of them – it’s still the most melodic, clever, natural piece of audio entertainment you’ll hear and best of all, it happens every day!
The louder your dawn chorus the more proud you can be of your efforts to give nature a home too. If you’re providing food, water and shelter, it is bound to make their voices as strong as possible!
Birds sing so loudly at dawn because it’s not a good time to go foraging for food so they focus their efforts at the start of the day on trying to attract a mate instead, it is also a good time to hold a territory. With less background noise early on, their song can carry up to twenty times as far.
Singing is hard work, so it is usually the fittest, best fed males who sing the loudest. In many cases, once a female has been serenaded the male will sing less often as his work is done.
We can all provide a place for wildlife in your own garden and hear birds singing close up. To find out how you can give nature a home where you live visit: rspb.org.uk/homes
Our nature reserves are also great places to visit to hear the birds welcome the new day. Head to our reserve pages to find a haven for nature near you - http://www.rspb.org.uk/discoverandenjoynature/seenature/reserves/
Access to the lighthouse and platform at the Rathlin West Light Seabird Centre may vary over the coming weeks. This is a temporary measure due to staffing levels. We anticipate that access to all areas will be in place by the end of May.
In the meantime, a forecast of availability will be posted here. Please check before planning your trip or call the Seabird Centre on 028 2076 0062. We appreciate your understanding and apologise for any disappointment should we have reduced access.
Thursday 12th - Sunday 22nd May
All aspects of the Rathlin West Light Seabird Centre, including the visitor centre, seabird viewing platform and lighthouse, are open as usual from 10am to 5pm with last admission at 4pm. Admission is free for RSPB members or £5 for adults/£2.50 for children.