After a busy calling season, corncrakes have gone quiet, but they are still in the fields, raising their broods and preparing to migrate back to Africa. Heather Beaton, Uist Warden, explains some of the challenges they are facing in August.

The secret lives of corncrakes in August

The summer cacophony has calmed: the nights are quieter, the dawn chorus more relaxed and the days have lost their high energy frenzy that’s the hallmark of early summer. Now, it’s the time for raising broods, fledging them and building up energy for the long autumn migration. And corncrakes are no exception to this rule.

They arrived in a hurry in late April and early May, and the males’ noisy call has been the soundtrack to our summer nights. However, for them, life has now taken on a new priority and although we still hear the occasional call, both males and females are living their lives out cryptically, hiding in the still-long vegetation, and preparing for their mammoth journey.

The females still have broods; indeed, they spend more time with their second brood of the year now that there’s no rush to breed again. And they can be later breeders than we often expect: there have been chicks seen in late August and, rarely, even into September. However, one of the commonest refrains I hear about corncrakes is how secretive they are. Yes, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there and some positive action from us can make a real difference as to how they survive to the following year.

baby corncrake in grass

It’s easy to protect the big, the noisy, or the cuddly. But what about this species that has been so vocal, and is now hidden in amongst the late cut silage? If it’s not calling, how are we meant to know it’s there? One of the best things to do is presume its presence. Mow slowly, mow in the wildlife friendly manner - side to side across the field, allowing the birds to escape into long grass and safety. And be patient. Do not good things come to those that wait? If we delay cutting, or cut slower, we increase the chances of corncrakes surviving this summer to return to breed next year and although we may never know if it was our direct action that helped the individual, at least you can be sure it wasn’t causing harm.

tractor in field

For now, they’re feeding up. They eat insects, worms, small amphibians, slugs, snails and arachnids which means our biodiverse meadows are perfect for them and they particularly love the wet ditch edges that teem with small animal life. They need the energy for their migration will not be an easy journey for them. They will fly thousands of miles, stopping off in Europe and western Africa for breaks, prior to reaching their wintering grounds in the Congo. Predation, hunting by humans and collisions, at any point on route, may bring a permanent halt to their journey.

Corncrakes fly at night, presumably to avoid predation from the sky, and join with other birds to form a mixed species flock – quails and spotted crake may be companions in flight. There are no borders for these birds, but that means they may fall prey to hunters in Europe, or predators in the Congo – not all their population problems rest in our hands. That doesn’t mean we cannot do our best, both to provide suitable habitat and to ensure our subsequent actions at harvest protect the population. The grass silage fields would be missing the soundtrack of summer if we allowed corncrake numbers to plunge, for once it’s gone, who would remember the remarkable call and the mysterious presence of the cryptic bird of the cornfield?

RSPB Scotland has launched Corncrake Calling, a four-year project working with farmers, crofters, communities and Scottish Government to safeguard the future of these rare birds. Educational activities, events and a touring exhibition will share the corncrake story. It is supported by a £375k National Lottery Heritage Fund grant.