If you started birding in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s like I did, the name Corn Crake conjured up a very mysterious and almost mythological image of a small rail that surely would never be seen in North America by any of us. Some of my mentors who had been birding since the early 1950’s would say that the Corn Crake was their most wanted bird. Field guides and other birding texts of that era described the Corn Crake as occasionally being shot by hunters, especially those hunters that used dogs to flush birds. Most of these reports were from the 19th century and there was very little documentation available to substantiate these claims.
In its normal area of distribution (NW Europe through Eurasia), Corn Crake populations have been steadily declining, which did not bode well for finding a stray in North America. In their book Rare Birds of North America Howell, et al speculate that this species is likely making regular landfall in eastern North America but going undetected essentially because hunting in wet grasslands, woods and meadows with dogs has declined.
In November 1997, a Corn Crake showed up in Nova Scotia. I remember this because some of my friends drove straight through from Pennsylvania to chase it. There was an added bonus: a Brown Shrike was also being seen not far from the Corn Crake. They saw the shrike but dipped on the crake.
When a Corn Crake was photographed on Monhegan Island (Maine) in October 2014, it was hard to believe this species was still showing up in North America. On January 1, 2016, a cat in Honesdale, Wayne County, PA delivered an injured Corn Crake to its owners. This bird later died from its injuries. Red flags immediately went up throughout the mid-Atlantic birding community and the idea of a Corn Crake occurring nearby was a very real possibility.
On November 7, 2017, a Corn Crake was discovered, photographed and observed throughout the day in the Cedar Beach area of Long Island, NY. With today’s numerous birding-related social media sites, word of this rare bird spread rapidly. The following day my wife Sharon and I decided we would stop at one of our favorite breakfast spots. While at breakfast, I casually mentioned that the Corn Crake on Long Island was still being seen as of that morning. Sharon said, “Why don’t you go for it?” I hesitated. It was almost noon and I really wanted to get a photo of the bird, but I was concerned that there may not be enough daylight left by the time I got there. Again she encouraged me to go, reminding me that there was no guarantee that the bird would still be there tomorrow. This time I thought, “Why not?” By 12:10 I was on my way.
Upon arriving, I noticed the contingent of birders standing on the highway’s brushy, grassy median looking across the highway towards the brushline bordering the highway, and there was the Corn Crake. It was slowly walking along the edge of the brush and sometimes going into the brush, but never really out of sight. The twenty or so other gathered birders watched as it fed on a few earthworms and generally obliged us with fantastic looks. The plumage appeared immaculate with some very cool black streaking on the back and dynamite rusty sides. To me, the mystery was over– the Corn Crake does exist and I was looking at one right now. It was great to see several millennial birders among the crowd and I couldn’t help but think to myself, “You guys don’t know how really lucky you are to be seeing this bird at your age and not having to wait until you’re a 65-year-old gray-haired grizzled birder to finally see one!”
This story has a sad ending, however. The Corn Crake was found dead the next morning, possibly after being struck by a car. While watching the bird, several of us discussed how this was a real possibility as the bird fed very close to the roadway. Sadder still was the knowledge that it had to have travelled about 3000 miles to meet such an end. This was a special bird I will not ever forget.
Reference: Howell, S.N.G., I. Lewington, & W. Russell. Rare Birds of North America. 2014. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey