Thursday, 19 May 2016

Spot the Cuckoo 18th May 2016

I called Clackers on Tuesday suggesting a trip to Cornwall to go and see the Dalmatian Pelican currently touring the far west of Cornwall. Later that day I sensibly decided I was too tired to be bothered to drive for four hours to Cornwall which would necessitate getting up at 4.30am on Wednesday morning.

Instead I suggested to Clackers we go to Portland in Dorset to try and see a Greater Spotted Cuckoo, a trans-equatorial migrant and rare visitor to Britain that had been hanging around there for the last few days, having overshot its normal summer range in southern Europe by some margin and ending up in an area of horse paddocks and thorny hedgerows off a road called Reap Lane. 

Great Spotted Cuckoos are an irregular vagrant to Britain and most spring records are from the south coast of Britain, tending towards the southwest which suggests the birds are overshooting from Iberia. The species has increased in northern Spain and is spreading in northern France. A juvenile was seen being fed by its Carrion Crow foster parents in Vendee western France in 1992 only 300 miles from the south coast of England but there has been little sign of records increasing markedly in Britain since. Carrion Crows and Magpies are the major host species for Great Spotted Cuckoos but unlike the Common Cuckoo, the young of the Great Spotted Cuckoo do not eject the eggs or young of the host species but leave them to try and survive alongside, but often the young of the host species die in the nest as they cannot adequately compete for food with the ravenous young cuckoo. When threatened by a predator the Great Spotted Cuckoo chick emits a foul smelling scent which acts as a powerful deterrent to any predator threatening the nest.

It was a bit of a gamble we had taken as the bird had been almost guaranteed to be seen in this small area of Reap Lane for most days but for the last two days it had become increasingly elusive and unpredictable. The bird in question was a first summer individual and despite being miles off course seemed reasonably content in the unseasonably warm weather we have had of late and was presented with a more than adequate food supply of abundant Brown tailed Moth caterpillars whose protective silken webs festooned the thorn hedges bounding the horse paddocks of Reap Lane.

The Wednesday weather forecast for our visit to Portland was hardly encouraging with heavy rain predicted until at least 10am and then possibly a dry spell before yet more rain. I suggested to Clackers we leave for Portland at the more sensible hour of 7.30am and as the drive was around three hours to Portland we would hopefully arrive just as the rain was abating.That was the plan anyway.

So it was that I collected Clackers from Witney and we set off southwest, down rain lashed major roads the spray from the rushing traffic creating a miasma of grey that was hard to see through, the vehicles ahead discernible only by their red rear lights. The rain had almost stopped by the time we got to Portland and parking at Reap Lane we found just a lone birder who had been checking all the bushes but reported that he had seen no sign of the cuckoo. We chatted for a bit in a desultory manner and then I too wandered the track around the horse paddocks and with a distinct feeling of inevitability confirmed there was indeed no sign of the cuckoo.

The rain, still falling but much lighter was made worse by a chilly southwest wind blowing across the paddocks. We stood forlorn and in that tired, slightly befuddled state of mind that comes after a long car journey, both of us wanted the other to make a decision as to what to do. Eventually we decided to go to the Bird Observatory to find out if there was any news about the cuckoo or, more truthfully, we had nothing better to do or suggest.  Why we went there when we knew there was no news in the first place is just one of those hopeful but despairing courses of action you seem to pursue when you have no firm idea of what to do. Of course on arriving at the Observatory and making enquiries we were told there was no news. We knew that! A brief conversation ensued with two birders, who were scoping the sea from the comfort of the Observatory lounge, about what had been passing on the sea and then we had to make another decision. This was getting truly burdensome. One of the birders told us the cuckoo had been seen early yesterday in a place called Top Fields which is within sight of the Observatory so we  decided to go there, preceded by an abortive trip to the nearby small quarry in the hope of seeing the regularly roosting Little Owl. Of course it was not there.

A Raven flew low over our heads cronking in fine style. We drove to Top Fields as Clackers, familiar with the whole area knew that by driving we could avoid the unnecessary exertion of climbing the hill from the Observatory to Top Fields. We parked the car and headed along a track between the fields which were remarkably free of any birdlife. Not a sign of the cuckoo or indeed very little else apart from Carrion Crows sat atop bushes waiting for smaller birds to betray their nest sites so the crows could raid them.

The wind was an extra degree of cold up here and we soon realised that this was mission hopeless and retreated back the way we had arrived. Now what can we do? 'Let's go back to Reap Lane. You never know!' I said,

Five minutes later we found ourselves back where it began a fruitless, frustrating, demoralising hour and a half ago. We again walked the track between the horse paddocks and were hardly surprised to find nothing resembling a Great Spotted Cuckoo. Four other birders came from further over the hill and we met on the same track. An exchange of information elicited the fact that it looked like we had all dipped and we stood in a huddle, buffeted by the wind and rain, and in a mild state of dejection.

Fed up with the likely prospect of dipping I left the group and walked slowly back down the track to the car thinking how increasingly attractive the Dalmatian Pelican in Cornwall was becoming. I got to the end of the track where it joined the road proper and a line of spindly small trees forming a windbreak was just to my left running away along one side of a horse paddock. Two starlings, perched at the top of one of the nearer small trees were swearing at something. I looked through my bins and saw several webs of Brown tailed Moth caterpillars in the tree branches. I looked again and a medium sized bird with just a greyish black head and pale creamy breast visible, was sat amongst the branches close by the caterpillar nests.  A double take on my part. 'Bloody hell, it's the Great Spotted Cuckoo! How the hell did it get there?' Clackers and new found friends were away across on the other side of the paddock chatting. I waved my arms to attract their attention and the cuckoo then flew towards them. They saw it and it briefly perched near them in a small bare tree before flying over them and onwards to land on the other side of the track, not very far away, on a low hedge of thorn and bramble running through the middle of a horse paddock.

The cuckoo was in the right hand line of brambles and thorn at the far end
The cuckoo's last known location in the brambles and thorn

The cuckoo perched openly on various bramble sprays for a few minutes looking around, giving me the opportunity to take a few distant images and then was dive bombed by a Herring Gull and alarmed, sought sanctuary we thought, in the furthest area of the bramble and thorn hedge.

We never saw it again as somehow it must have given us the slip and flown away unseen from the paddocks although we kept as close an eye as possible on where it had last dropped into the thorns and brambles. How we managed to miss it flying off is a mystery I will never understand as I swear we never took our eyes off the spot but somehow we must have, just for a fraction but enough for the cuckoo to give us the slip. 

So our day came to a somewhat unsatisfactory end as we both would have liked to have seen more of the Great Spotted Cuckoo but it was not to be. The rain started to come down hard again and the weather was becoming distinctly unpleasant with a strengthening cold wind. The cuckoo was not seen again that day by others searching for it, so at least we could have the satisfaction of having seen it. Albeit at the last possible opportunity. 

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