Much more often heard, often at night, than seen, the Corncrake was once found in every county in Britain and Ireland – that’s about 150 years ago. But it made the mistakes of nesting in grasslands and needing to produce lots of young every year to survive. Corncrakes are short-lived – only 25-30% of adults survive to the next year. So they need to produce lots of young which means having more than one successful nesting attempt each year. Corncrakes will keep laying eggs and producing chicks through the summer and into August. This has worked well for thousands of years but as mechanisation of hay cutting, loss of hay meadows and silage making have increased it has become more and more difficult for Corncrakes to produce enough young to survive (their ‘r’, that concept with which we have become more familiar thanks to a certain virus, has to be >1 and it has dropped to <1 in most places in the UK).
Corncrakes stay in the long grass and are rarely seen – but if they are around, you may well hear them. I usually pay a visit to the RSPB Nene Washes at this time of year, one evening, sometimes to avoid the Eurovision Song Contest on TV, to listen for Corncrake. The Nene washes has Corncrakes thanks to them being reintroduced there but otherwise you will have to head to the the Hebrides or Western Isles, or maybe Orkney, to stand much of a chance of hearing them in the UK. Otherwise, head east to a part of Europe whose agriculture looks primitive and you’ll find Corncrakes.
When you are in the right place you may wonder whether this was a song worth hunting down. The scientific name for the Corncrake is Crex crex and that’s a pretty good rendition of its rasping song.
Here are Corncrakes singing from Sweden (in 1965):
… and from Austria:
… and from Lewis, Scotland, UK:
I used to drive past a small place called Tempsford, just off the A1 and by the River Ouse, on my commute to Sandy. In the first book on the birds of Bedfordshire in the early 1900s, Tempsford’s Corncrakes were mentioned as keeping the residents awake with their incessant calling. No longer.