The distinctive call of one of our rarest and most secretive birds has returned to Rathlin Island.
The unmistakable “crex-crex” call of the corncrake has been heard on the island off the north coast of County Antrim, much earlier in the season than usual, prompting hopes that this iconic bird has successfully bred.
The corncrake is a red-listed species (a bird of high conservation concern) and while many people can fondly remember hearing its call in years gone by, Rathlin is the only place in Northern Ireland where the birds have been heard in recent years.
Corncrakes are highly secretive and like to settle in early growing tall vegetation like nettles, cow parsley, and irises.
Over the weekend RSPB staff and volunteers confirmed that the call was heard on the western end of the island – the same location as last year and in 2016.
Liam McFaul, RSPB NI Rathlin Island warden, said: “It’s fantastic news. It’s very early in the season to have a bird come back, so this is really encouraging. Corncrakes are territorial so they always come back to the place where they were either breeding or where they hatched. We’d normally first hear the call in mid-to-late May.
“Only the male corncrake calls, so hopefully this means he is home to roost. There’s a chance that this could be the offspring of the male that we’ve heard calling over the last couple of years. And because it’s so early in the season, its call could attract more corncrakes to Rathlin.”
Historically, corncrakes were common across Rathlin but they have gone into sharp decline since the 1980s. By 1989 they stopped returning on their migratory route from Africa as a regular breeder.
The birds have turned up sporadically since and the last confirmed breeding corncrakes on the island were recorded in 2000. A bird was heard calling in 2014 and again in 2016 and 2017.
However, the species can still be found in large numbers on the west coast of Scotland and in Donegal.
Over the last 15 years, RSPB NI has been engaged in specific habitat management on Rathlin in an effort to re-establish a sustainable breeding corncrake population in Northern Ireland.
RSPB NI staff and volunteers have been working hard to provide more of the breeding environment that corncrakes prefer – including suitable early vegetation cover on the island.
“We were actually involved in a project to plant nettles in the area where the corncrake can be heard now, so it could well be in those nettles that he’s making his home,” added Liam.
“All of this work we’re doing is for the long-haul and the goal is to have a sustainable corncrake population on Rathlin again.
“The fact that this one is in the same area is a good indicator that breeding has been successful. So we can almost be sure that it bred last year, because the male was heard calling for 66 consecutive days
“It’s definitely good news. If we have an established corncrake population here it could be a big tourism benefit for Rathlin. People are known to travel to Tory Island in Donegal just because of the corncrakes there.
“It’s still early in the season, so it could well be that we hear another corncrake somewhere else on the island.
“That would be a really encouraging sign that the work we’re doing for corncrakes is making a difference.”
Corncrakes are easily spooked so members of the public are asked not to try and get in any way close to the bird if they hear its call as it is on private land and it is really important that the bird is not disturbed.