...to hear the corncrakes sing.

A century ago the corncrake's song was heard in grassy fields in every county in the UK but now it is restricted to some Scottish islands (eg Islay, Coll, Tiree, the Uists) and a few pairs on mainland Scotland and occasionally in England and northern Ireland.  And in the same period the song of the corncrake has been lost from much of Europe - eastern Europe is now the best place to listen for its song.

Now I call it a song (because it is!) but we aren't in the realm of song thrush, nightingale or blackcap here.  The corncrake's song is a rasping sound a little like running your finger over the teeth of a comb.  Its scientific name, Crex crex, rather sums it up!  And the bird itself is no looker either!  It's a small brown moorhen-like bird which you never see because it hides so well in the long grass!

A few years ago we teamed up with Whipsnade Zoo and Natural England to reintroduce corncrakes into England and chose the RSPB's nature reserve at the Nene Washes, near Peterborough, as the release site because it is a large area of suitable grassland for corncrakes to feed and nest.  Young corncrakes, bred in captivity by very skilled Whipsnade staff are brought to the Washes in summer and then released into the wild.  Sounds simple doesn't it?  Of course, it's a complicated project which has had its ups and downs but has resulted in hundreds of young corncrakes being released over the last few years.  Then it's up to the corncrakes themselves to make the Nene Washes their home and then, and this is amazing, head off to the other side of the Sahara before flying back to the Nene Washes the next spring!

So I parked at the small car park at Eldernell and walked west along the bank before sitting down to listen.  Sedge warblers were singing in the gathering gloom and mallards and gadwalls were quacking.  A snipe 'drummed' overhead.  A shoveler made its characteristic 'tok-tok-tok' call.  Lapwings and redshanks.  A pheasant. Cows. A heron. A fox. A tawny owl. The quiet countryside is actually very noisy!

And then, from the dark, I thought I heard a corncrake - but I wasn't sure.  Was it just a funny distant duck?  And then I was sure - the corncrake got into its stride and whilst it was distant I was now listening to a sound that was commonplace a century ago but very unusual now. Crex crex, crex crex, crex crex!

That singing bird had travelled to Africa, and then back, to avoid our winter.  It may have run between an elephants legs in a marsh in Kenya whilst we were shivering in the cold snap in February. But all the time it 'knew' that the Nene Washes were its home and it made its way back here to land in the long grass and fill the air with its song.  Not the most beautiful song in the world (except, presumably to a female corncrake) but a most amazing experience - to sit listening to something that has been absent for a century and know that it is possible because of hard work by a large number of conservationists and even harder work by a small moorhen-like bird.

Anonymous
  • I live in Cheddar, Somerset,  at the bottom of a valley with the Mendip Hills rising behind. The call seems to come come from the slope of the hills which are grass with gorse, blackthorn,may trees, etc. on one side and woods on the other. I have never heard the call before in 15 years of living here.

    A corncrake was reported in the general area in September  and October,  about half an hour away to west and to north.  Unless of course it was this duck or whatever, I am hearing. :-)

    It does sound like the crex crex of the corncrake, the double call repeated continuously, on and on, early in the morning, late afternoon, sometimes at night, sometimes during the day. It is, frankly, an irritating call.  

    I spoke to a wildlife advisor at RSPB today who suggested the partridges but it isn't either.  

    I am beginning to wonder if it is a duck or a goose but can't match the call.  We have people who keep birds of prey locally but it seems unlikely to be a raptor.

    As the sound seems to have moved around the valley, I assumed it was a wild bird but the valley is like a big disc and sound is reflected clearly so perhaps it is someone's funny duck/goose !!

    Now the snow has gone, at last, I shall have to have a wander round to see if I can spot it. I shall let you know if I find it.    Also there are lots of bird watchers in the area at the reservoir and no one else seems to have mentioned it anywhere.

    At least I know the " Boo"  I heard the other night, was unmistakenly a Long Eared Owl.

  • Emptynester - well you have me puzzled.  You are right to think this is the wrong time of year for corncrakes - they should all be on the other side of the Sahara now.  And I can't think what would make a similar noise.  I'm not sure it will help but where in the country do you live and what sort of habitat are we talking about please?  

  • i HAVE HEARD A VERY INSISTANT CALLING SINCE THE BEGINNING OF DECEMBER. IT SOUNDS LIKE A CORNCRAKE WHICH I KNOW SHOULD NOT BE HERE ALTHOUGH ONE WAS HEARD NOT FAR AWAY IN OCTOBER.  YOU MENTION THAT YOU THOUGHT IT MAY HAVE BEEN "A FUNNY DISTANT DUCK".  WHAT OTHER BIRD OR DUCK COULD IT BE?  iT IS NOT A RED LEGGED PARTRIDGE OR GREY PARTRIDGE BUT IT DOES HAVE THE HARSHNESS OF A DUCK OR GOOSE BUT SOUNDS JUST LIKE THE CREX CREX OF A CORNCRAKE, EVEN PHRASED THE SAME WAY.