I don’t get many texts, especially late in the evening, so when I heard a ‘ping’ I looked immediately. It was from Stuart White, neighbour across the road, and a keen birdwatcher.
“CORNCRAKE Thorpe Marshes in nettle patch by cattle pens, heard at 7:15 (19:15) and just heard again at 9 p.m.” My reply: “Wow!” From Stuart: “Bonkers.”
That was on the evening of 19 May and I didn’t sleep well that night. At 05:30 I was up, though others had made an earlier start. As I reached the railway bridge to enter the reserve at 6 a.m. I passed Dave Farrow, who was already leaving. Not only had he heard the corncrake, he’d had enough of a view of the bird to take the photo with this blog.
There was no need for me to worry. The corncrake called regularly and loudly, and from inside the cattle corral, working this morning like an accidental hide, I was able to take a video that also recorded its distinctive double rasp. That morning I first heard it at 06:04 and then regularly until I left at 07:30, though I didn’t see it – which remained the case throughout its stay at Thorpe Marshes.
Corncrake calling at NWT Thorpe Marshes, taken by Chris Durdin
There was no crowd that first morning: just four bird listeners (rather than watchers), socially distanced, plus neighbours and dog walkers out early who were also introduced to the sound of our special guest.
On my return home there were three emails in my inbox alerting me to this ‘mega’ bird on my home patch, including one from the south of Spain. Word was already out on the grapevine, and in the following days and weeks many people came to hear the corncrake.
So why the excitement? The corncrake’s decline, and the efforts to reverse that decline, can be ranked in the top 10 of conservation challenges for birds in the UK, alongside bitterns, stone-curlews and red kites.
Once upon a time, corncrakes were widespread in lowland England, nesting in wet meadows and cereal crops, the latter looking nothing like today’s arable farming. There is a familiar narrative about the decline of farmland birds in the second half of the 20th Century. For corncrakes in Norfolk, the decline pre-dates that. The written accounts record a big decline in the 19th Century, with just a scattering of calling corncrakes in Norfolk by the interwar period and few since.
Now corncrakes are more or less restricted, as a breeding bird, to the Hebrides and the Orkneys. Here there have been huge efforts to help them, especially hay fields with uncut ‘corncrake corners’ of iris and stinging nettles, promoted through wildlife-friendly farming schemes, plus encouragement to harvest hay and silage in ways that don’t harm corncrakes.
After initial successes, corncrake numbers in the Western Isles have been in decline again and conservationists are trying a new approach – reintroductions. Corncrakes breed readily in captivity, and from around 18 years ago they were released on the RSPB’s Nene Washes nature reserve in Cambridgeshire. For the past four years, the same approach has been underway in Norfolk’s Wensum Valley with birds raised and released by the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust.
The odds are that the corncrake at Thorpe Marshes was a bird released from Pensthorpe. Corncrakes are migrants, wintering in sub-Saharan Africa. So, whether it’s a bird on route to Scotland or the Wensum Valley, it has been on a remarkable journey before finding that our lush wetland on the eastern edge of Norwich suited it rather well. The only way to be sure about its origin would be to confirm it had a ring fitted by Pensthorpe, and that didn’t happen. Remaining hidden is normal for corncrakes – Stuart and I heard about just four sightings in its stay for the best part of a month.
The Thorpe Marshes corncrake called daily for at least two weeks, and most if not all days during a third week. Early mornings, evenings and at night were, as for all corncrakes, the best time to hear it, though it was quite often vocal at other times: I heard it mid-afternoon on several occasions.
After a cool, wet spell of weather, it became quieter and the last time it was heard, so far as I know, was on 14 June, nearly four weeks after it arrived. Gone now, or just silent? Given that corncrakes may call through much of June and July, probably gone.
It's tricky to better a corncrake as a lockdown celebrity, though a Savi’s warbler during the third week of June is pretty close. Both birds attracted birdwatchers new to Thorpe Marshes, and it was nice to hear many compliments about my local patch.
There’s also been a bonus for dragonfly enthusiasts: several sightings of scarce chaser. Scarce chaser is fairly common in the Mid Yare but hasn’t previously been at Thorpe Marshes. It’s the 22nd species of dragonfly and damselfly for the nature reserve, which is best known for its easy to see Norfolk hawkers. Quite a dragonfly hotspot.
The text from Stuart on 19 May wasn’t the last. On 28 May, another late evening text suggested I listened out of the window in my back bedroom. At first there was just the hum of the Norwich Southern Bypass, quieter then than now at that earlier stage in lockdown. A train clattered past. Then the faint but distinctive ‘crex crex’ of our corncrake, about 650 metres away!
Chris Durdin usually leads monthly wildlife walks at NWT Thorpe Marshes. Details of walks and recent sightings at the nature reserve can be found here.
Header image by Dave Farrow