A night 'out out' with Dr John Bowler; surveying corncrakes on the Isle of Tiree, Summer 2021.

It is early June and I have become nocturnal again. For the last 20 years, I have spent nine nights every June counting Corncrakes on the Isle of Tiree. Male Corncrakes can call at any time of day, but they do so most consistently between midnight and 3am in June, so this is the core time for census work. With 300-400 calling males, Tiree has the most Corncrakes in the UK. Although the island is only 12 miles long by 3 miles wide, all of it is crofted or farmed and Corncrakes can call from all but the central moorland areas, so it takes me a full three nights to cover the island in each of the three survey rounds.

Gott Bay at night, Isle of Tiree.

Each day, I scour the online weather reports for good conditions for survey work. Calm mild nights are best, as birds are easier to hear when there is no wind, whilst a heavy shower of rain can stop them calling completely and result in a wasted night. By 11pm I have usually texted my colleagues on Coll to see if they are going for it too and I listen out for the birds that I know are present on our road to start calling, before I head out into the night. “Night” is too strong a word for the dim twilight hours that pass as night on the Hebrides in June. A brighter band of sky illuminates the northern horizon throughout the survey period, silhouetting the mountains of Rum and Skye up to 50km away. It is sometimes possible to complete the survey without a torch, whilst on other nights, thick pockets of mist fill the hollows.

I drive to the start of my allotted section, turn the engine off, jump out of the car and listen with hands cupped around my ears for the familiar rasping “Crex crex” call of male Corncrakes. The location of each calling bird is duly marked on my survey map and I drive on a further 100m and repeat the procedure. I carry on doing this for the next three hours. The call of some birds will echo off walls, making it sound like there are two birds, but a quick walk towards the calls, will make the false one, disappear. Occasional birds sound like they have lost their voice with only the rhythm of their rusty mechanical clicking giving their identity away. Distances are too great for the survey to be completed by bicycle alone, although I carry a bike in the back of my LandRover and use it for rough tracks, where the car cannot go.

Not all birds that call at night on Tiree are Corncrakes. There are Water Rails and Grasshopper Warblers in the marshes and Snipe drumming all over the island, whilst the “wet-my-lips” calls of Quail are a rare bonus. You never quite know what you might bump into in the eerie twilight. Memorable encounters with inquisitive bulls (surprisingly quiet at night), head-butting sheep, mating hedgehogs (surprisingly noisy) and cars without headlights, all add to the sense of excitement. Tiree has a rich history of ghostly tales, which I try not to think about as I wander about in remote places.

By 3am the Skylarks start singing once more and the pale line of dawn spreads across the eastern horizon. It’s time to head for home and bed, with the Crexing of Corncrakes still ringing in my ears.

Have you heard or seen a corncrake this spring / summer? You can help our surveyors and corncrakes by telling us where and when using our new online tool below: