I did not expect to hear corncrakes when I visited Iona, off the west coast of Scotland last month. I certainly did not expect to see them. So I was in for a wonderful surprise.
In fact the Iona corncrakes sing at night and for much of the day; they are so noisy they must irritate the residents, exacerbated by the starlings which mimic them.
On our first evening we strolled at dusk from the Argyll Hotel on the seafront towards the abbey. We had gone no distance before we heard the distinctive rasping ‘song‘ from the iris along the shore. The corncrake’s taxonomic name Crex crex says it all.
The next morning I went out before breakfast and heard many more. I searched and searched with my binoculars but saw nothing. They are further away than their sound implies. The corncrakes were accompanied by reed and sedge warblers and overhead a drumming snipe.
The following morning I learnt the trick of seeing a corncrake. You are unlikely to see them among the iris where they can hide.
They are much more visible when they are on grass. So as soon as I heard one, apparently close by, in the meadow below the Columbia Hotel, I climbed the stile and went up the slope. I could then look down on the grass and I saw one scuttling along. It was much smaller than it sounded, only a little larger than a song thrush.
I saw one in the same place the following morning. And in the afternoon I spotted one by the coast, again in shorter grass.
There are not many corncrakes; they are a Red List species. They have been actively conserved on Iona for the last 30 years and have increased from two in the early nineties to about 30 now.
There is a field roughly in the centre of Iona which is managed for corncrakes, providing early and late cover for them. It is left ungrazed between 1 March and 30 September to ensure the vegetation remains high, and an adjoining silage meadow is not harvested until August.
Corncrakes migrate from Africa in about April. So our visit in May was ideal for seeing them.