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CRAKE-ING NEWS: Four calling corncrakes confirmed on Rathlin Island

Corncrake on Rathlin, May 2021, by Northcoast Nature/Tom McDonnell

RSPB warden confirms four calling male corncrakes in the Church Bay area, two established birds (believed to have found mates) plus two new arrivals - Rathlin is the only place in Northern Ireland home to this red-listed species

Four calling male corncrakes have been recorded on Rathlin Island for first time since the late ‘70s / early ‘80s. The corncrake is a secretive bird known for its distinctive ‘crex-crex’ call. It is one of Northern Ireland’s rarest birds - a red-listed species (a bird of high conservation concern) - and their numbers have been in sharp decline since the 1980s. Rathlin is the only place in Northern Ireland home to this species and has been a focus for RSPB NI to create the right habitat for a corncrake comeback.

For the last six years, at least one calling male has been heard. This year, two males arrived in late April (24 and 29) and are established on the island, with their behaviour indicating they have attracted mates. Two new males were recorded yesterday (Wednesday), so if these new arrivals remain and attract a mate it will be a real conservation coup. RSPB Rathlin Island warden Liam McFaul said:

“I was very happy that we had two calling males, so to hear four yesterday was quite something. "There’s no doubt that there were four birds in four different locations. It would be nice if all four got mates and stayed on the island, but there’s always a chance that one or two might leave again and settle elsewhere.”

Liam will continue to monitor the birds, which are all within a half-mile radius of each other. At least three of the birds have been heard in nettle beds created over the last decade by RSPB NI staff and volunteers to attract corncrakes to the field margins of Church Bay. The hope is to achieve a sustainable population of corncrakes, with four or five pairs regularly breeding. One islander even caught an extremely rare glimpse of a male and female corncrake side by side in a field on Tuesday (May 4). Corncrakes have two broods; the first in June and the second in late July or early August. After the second brood hatches, the birds will migrate back to Africa in August or September. “When I grew up on Rathlin, corncrakes were always singing out in the fields and they were all over the island. Then, over the years, I could see the decline happening before my eyes; the birds just weren’t there anymore,” said Liam. “When I first got involved with the RSPB, I got to see the bigger picture of how the birds were in decline and so much of our work has been about trying to turn the tide. “We’ve worked closely with landowners and with all the habitat work we eventually had one bird coming back, then a few years later two birds, then one and now it’s up to four. So we’ve been working towards this for a long time.”

“Nature at its best - Corncrake calling away just outside the house on Rathlin! (Douglas Cecil)

A Northern Ireland Environment Agency corncrake grant scheme is in place on the island and is administered by RSPB NI. The scheme works with farmers to ensure their lands remain safe for these protected birds. Corncrakes are easily spooked, so members of the public are asked not to try and get close to the birds, which are on private land. It is vitally important they are not disturbed and that this sensitive conservation effort is not compromised.


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