The distinctive call of the male corncrake, a shy migrant bird of the hay meadows, is described as like a ratchet being turned – a very loud, continuous, mainly nocturnal territorial call, from which the bird derives its Latin name – Crex crex. It can be heard from early May through to July. The birds nest in hay meadows and silage fields, where mowing machines and earlier harvesting dates have progressively destroyed their nesting habitat.
Once common throughout Western Europe, and especially plentiful in Ireland, their numbers have declined drastically with the advent of modern farming. Now only a very few remain – 136 calling birds in 2011 – at a handful of locations, mainly on the west and north coasts. Up until the 1940s, there were still tens of thousands of corncrakes in Ireland; their calls filling the night air throughout the countryside. Although they remain plentiful in countries like Poland and Russia, they are largely absent in Western Europe, for instance being extinct in England and Wales, as well absent from all but the western and northern fringes of Ireland. A scheme to encourage the corncrake’s return offers grants to farmers for corncrake-friendly farming measures in fields where the birds are confirmed nesting.
The best place to still hear the evocative call of the corncrake in Connemara is on Inishbofin, although they also favour other islands, including the tidal Omey Island as well as nearby locations on the mainland. For up-to-date information on corncrake locations and other bird news, check the BirdWatch Galway website birdwatchgalway.org. To report hearing a corncrake, call the Connemara National Park on 095-41054.
Special thanks to Tim Gordon, corncrake fieldworker / photo: corncrake in Cleggan, courtesy of John Brittain