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 Corncrake - Fact File
Crex crex
Rare and declining summer visitor. Remaining strongholds in north-west Scotland and Ireland.
Rank grass and hay meadows.
More often heard than seen - a distinctive dry rasping. When seen in flight, has long rufous wings and flies low with legs dangling.
26 cm (11")


Browsing through Henry Stevenson's massive three-volume Birds of Norfolk, I chanced upon an account of a nocturnal visit to Surlingham 'one of our prettiest Broads, and, from its close vicinity to Brundall Station, one of the most easy of access by rail from Norwich.'

Stevenson describes herons rising from the water's edge and an abundance of moorhens and coots. But the most intriguing remark was the fact that 'corncrakes were regularly answering each other.'

I then read his essay describing this enigmatic summer visitor to Victorian Norfolk and found that springtime arrival was expected from mid-April. Although its rasping call was so well known, few who noted its arrival from Africa ever really saw it.

Really nocturnal in habits, male corncrakes at this season favoured 'rich meadows and the drier marshes dividing arable from the swampiest levels.' The males became so obsessed by nuptial instincts that they called day and night.

Normally high secretive and remaining in cover, the birds only took flight if taken by surprise, fluttering a short distance in a desultory way, with dangling legs and feeble-looking wing action, suggesting young birds. This behaviour certainly did not suggest a bird capable of sustained flight on migration. Such flights were evidently undertaken at low elevations. Like other crakes the corncrake was more prone than most to colliding with overhead wires.

When walking about undisturbed a Broadland corncrake's head would move to and fro at each step, with feet lifting high. But it always remained very cautious and at the least sound the neck would be stretched to full extent as the bird craned its head above the grass for a better view.

Stevenson regularly recorded corncrakes in the mid-Yare valley nearly Coldham Hall 'calling to one another from either side of the river.' On one occasion, three were shot at Surlingham in a single day and on the other side of the waterway a further nine out of 10 birds met a similar end.

Corncrakes have not bred in Norfolk for many years. In fact the species is one of the most threatened of all our birds. So it is heartening to read that at the RSPB Reserve on the Hebridean island of Coll (2500 acres) grass-cutting has been carried out using 'corncrake friendly' techniques and payments are being made for delayed hay and silage-cutting. Hopefully these measures will help to halt the decline, at least on this Reserve.

By Michael J. Seago

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Copyright Information

  • Article: © Eastern Counties Newspapers Group
  • Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge © Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.
  • Other material: © Birds Of Britain