Jo Gerrard writes about her search for the elusive corncrake on the tiny island of Iona.
I sit at the long wooden table: highly polished, sticky circular residue soiling the shine, a bowl of imitation iron fillings – I investigate with taste; it was locally sourced seaweed, dried and crushed into sprinkle sized portions. As I pick out the remnants of the sea vegetable from my molars I am asked the usual conversation starter question: ‘What brings you to Iona?’
I pause. I inhale a long deep breath. I hesitantly reply, aware of the mawkish response: ‘I just woke up one day with it on my mind.’ There is a nod of recognition. Most people seem to have had the same experience; the same answer to the same question. It’s like a phone ringing and ringing waiting for someone to answer the call. I picked it up. So did the middle-aged man opposite me, and the woman sat on the sofa whilst reading a book about migrant birds. The only one who didn’t is the elderly man I shared a room with. He had been dumped here by his family who were on holiday in Scotland. The conversation had been soundtracked by a long-haired man sat crossed legged in the corner strumming a guitar. I called him ‘two chords’ as that appeared to be all he knew. It was apt; the same repetitive revelation spoken to the same repetitive C and G chords.
The small talk ends abruptly. The door swings open. A woman in her 40s bounds in with the respiratory effort of someone crossing the finish line of a marathon.
‘I’ve … seen … one!’ she wheezed in-between words. ‘I’ve … seen … a … corncrake!’
The scattering of people in the communal room make coos of congratulations and awe. Even Two-chords downs the guitar for a brief moment to acknowledge her great feat of observation. The woman pulls at a tube hanging out from her rucksack that was still laden on her shoulders. She sucks on it like her life depended on it. It probably does; the tube was connected to an oxygen canister. This woman had hiked over the island for days seeking out this bird – with a heavy gaseous bottle on her back which was her lifeline – yet I was lolling about dreamily. I’d achieved little other than a ‘Celtic tan’ (my skin was beginning to match the hue of the red ensign flag), and a few pictures of oystercatchers. And now I am brimming with curiosity: what was this corncrake? And what made it so special?
Corncrakes are not much bigger than a blackbird, and are related to coots and moorhens – however, unlike them, corncrakes live on dry-land. Their scientific name crex crex is onomatopoeic; their call is rasping like two wooden combs being rubbed together. I’d heard it many times on the island. I knew it was a corncrake, yet I was never really compelled to seek it out. I wanted to see whales, dolphins, eagles – I wanted the full tourist experience! The big hitters! I wasn’t interested in small ground-nesting birds. When I was back at home I looked into this troubled bird. Changes in farming habits has meant the population has declined dramatically in recent years, with up to 60% of chicks being killed by usual mowing practices. What also prods my intrigue is how, up until relatively recently, people believed they went underground, or turned into moorhens in the winter. When so much mystery has been uncovered, the corncrake clings onto an air of myth. It has been found as far as the Congo, and Kathleen Jamie called them ‘Little Gods of the Field’ in her book, ‘Findings’. That is what they are: mysterious, elusive, and if we listen we can hear their call, but we rarely see them. I now have an unquenchable thirst. I must see a corncrake.
The next three visits to Iona I made attempts to spot one. I camped out in tent-breaking gales, torrential rain, a brief spell of unseasonal snow, and blazing heat. I heard corncrakes everywhere. They teased and taunted me with their crex crex that seemed to be coming from every direction. I visited the puffins on Staffa again, I saw dolphins, whales, a black otter, seals, oystercatchers, sandlings, dunlins, plovers … a whole array of wildlife … but no corncrake. I give-up. I admit defeat. Perhaps it is just the thought of them that is magical. Maybe it is like Christmas Day, when after all the presents have been opened there is a slight pang of disappointment – the anticipation has been dissolved into empty boxes and torn paper. The myth of the corncrake is the charm. I don’t want to see one. I don’t want the magic to go.
On the next visit I relax. I sit on the beach reading and watching the ring-necked plovers run in and out with the tide. I look for green stone, witnessed spectacular sunsets, and hike across the little island to the most inaccessible parts – envious of the buzzards above cruising the thermals as I wearily wish I was fitter. As part of my tradition formed by a solitary mind, I run up Dun I and wash my face in the Font of Youth (still awaiting results), and then slowly descend the hill which seemed to be getting more perilous after each trip. I stroll back along the road heading to the White Strands beach (allegedly where monks had been repeatedly slaughtered by Vikings) when … what was that? In my periphery I spot something small and brown. I turn my head. A downy looking bird stares back at me. We both freeze for a split second, both shocked by the existence of one another. Then it bolts across the field into the undergrowth: gawkish, inelegant, much like Sesame Street’s Beaker in a panic.
I am annoyed, but the rush of adrenaline betrayed my outward peevishness. I saw a corncrake. There was no one around to share my joy. I grab my phone and searched for someone to text – no one I knew would be interested, but I am. I care. I’d seen this bird and someone was going to hear about it. Then I remembered: there is no phone reception on this island.
The next day is my last on Iona. I do the usual as my tradition dictates: wander the shops, light a candle in the chapel, have a Windswept beer, and panic a little about weather vs ferry. I stroll up towards the Machair and spot a small crowd at the foot of a private garden. They hold up cameras and phones all pointing at this patch of long grass. I hear a nearby crex crex. My pace unconsciously increases in speed like an inner desire has overtaken my legs and now marched them to stand beside a camo-clad man holding a long lens that probably cost more than my car. I sidle up beside him; he appears to be the best to befriend at this moment.
‘It’s just there,’ he says, pointing at the grass. His grey beard doesn’t conceal the satisfied warm smile. ‘Just up from that rock.’
I see it. Between the blades of lush green grass and pink wild flowers is a Little God of the Field calling out to the females. It is so close I can see its beak opening as it crex crex. I’ve now seen two corncrakes in as many days, and this time it has been shared with equally as surprised spectators, and equally as in awe of this bird.
I don’t stick around for long. I don’t want to take the moment for granted. I’ve stepped into this magical world of the corncrake long enough and do not want to impose like an over-staying guest. I thank the birder and go on my way. I meander up onto the beach with a contented step and watch the plovers running in and out with the ebb tide. I while away the hours as I wait for my ferry just finding joy in being part of the landscape: quiet, still, observing, alone. Slowly I begin to understand the call from this little Isle in the West. Iona.
Jo Gerrard is currently studying the MA in Wild Writing at the University of Essex after completing her undergraduate in Creative Writing at Greenwich. Her main interests lie in faeries and folklore, however she is a keen birder and often loiters in the shadows with binoculars seeking out those feathered friends.