Monday 5 June 2017

Close Encounters of the Cuckoo Kind 4th June 2017

A couple of weeks ago I was in a dilemna about going to see a Night Heron in Shropshire or a Common Cuckoo, which was so confiding it bordered on the ridiculous, frequenting Thursley Common in Surrey. In the end I opted for the heron and put the cuckoo to the back of my mind.

Yesterday, Saturday, I spent a happy couple of hours at Otmoor RSPB, my local reserve, watching amongst other birds Common Cuckoos, which this year are the most abundant I have ever known them to be on the reserve. Rather than just encountering single birds as is usual, this year you are more likely to see them flying in anything up to groups of three or four and amongst them there is also one of the rare hepatic females in which the grey feathering is replaced by brown.

I met Mark and Pete on the bridleway and we were discussing the plethora of cuckoos on the reserve when Mark in passing asked if I had been to see the Cuckoo, namely the one on Thursley Common. I told him that events had just got in the way and anyway it would be long gone now as over two weeks had passed. 'Well it was there last Saturday and as far as I  know is still performing' replied Mark.

There and then I resolved to make the trip to Thursley the next day, Sunday, in an attempt to see this famed Cuckoo. Mark had earlier given me verbal instructions as to where to find it on Thursley Common so all I needed to do was muster the willpower to rise early on Sunday morning and make the two hour drive south to rural Surrey.

Sunday dawned bright and sunny and I was set fair for Thursley Common. For once it was a pleasure to drive the Motorways, as an early Sunday departure meant comparatively little traffic and I was soon driving down a minor road from the village of Elstead  which led me to The Moat car park on the opposite side of the road to Thursley Common.

Following Mark's instructions I headed off into the wide heathery expanses of the Common following the trails he had told me to. 

At least that was the plan but somewhere I went wrong and could not find the large metal dragonfly which was the main landmark Mark told me to look out for. I retraced my steps almost back to the road and encountered three lycra clad lovelies and asked them if they could direct me to the metal dragonfly. They then had a bit of a conflab amongst themselves and voted two to one that I should follow the sandy track they indicated to my left and which I had somehow missed.

Following this track I came to the shining metalwork of the dragonfly without too much bother and then all I had to do according to Mark's instructions was follow the right hand track and I would come to a wood and passing through that would find a gate which led into a large field surrounded on all sides by trees. This is where the Cuckoo would be found, coming to feed on mealworms placed on a wooden perch especially erected by photographers.

Easy then? Not a bit of it. I got lost again and rang Mark who wisely but sadly for me had turned his phone to silent. I left a text message in the hope he would get it eventually but in the meantime I was at a loss as to where to go. Half an hour of aimless wandering on the vast acres of Thursley had got me no nearer the hallowed field although I did see and hear a Cuckoo calling in a Silver Birch.Was this the particular Cuckoo I had come to see? I had no idea.

Mark eventually called and I found that, although well off course, I was not that far away from the required location and with fresh instructions from a very patient Mark I was on my way towards the wood on the other side of which was the field. As I walked towards the trees two Cuckoos flew along the side of the wood and disappeared. 

The Cuckoo field surrounded by trees
I soon found the field, currently with six people standing some twenty metres in from its edge presumably waiting for the Cuckoo to appear on an obviously prepared perch consisting of a propped up branch and some logs that had been erected by photographers. 

The artificially constructed perch awaiting the Cuckoo

Awaiting the Cuckoo
I joined the small gathering,and was pleasantly surprised to find two were birding colleagues from Sussex, who gallingly told me I had just missed a visit by the Cuckoo, so we had  a chat and I settled down to wait for the Cuckoo to re-appear. It was now around 9.30am and my two friends having already seen the Cuckoo decided to leave which left just me and four others to while away the time anticipating the imminent arrival of the Cuckoo.

Whilst waiting we were entertained by a wondrously smart, male Common Redstart that had young in a hole in a nearby Silver Birch and was busily coming to collect the mealworms that were placed on the perch for the Cuckoo. You could hardly begrudge its taking advantage, especially as it was so photogenic. We only saw the female Redstart once but the male came back time and again and we began to worry that we would run out of mealworms for the Cuckoo. Depressingly, an hour had passed without sight or sound of the Cuckoo, as we were joined by a young boy and his father also keen to see the Cuckoo.

Common Redstart-male
Two Woodlarks wandered through the grass and a little later the lovely melancholy song of the male drifted across from the heathery expanses beyond the field as a couple of Mistle Thrushes searched for worms in the shorter grass. A distant Garden Warbler sang from the bushes behind us and a Green Woodpecker flew in looping bounds across the field but there was still no sign of the Cuckoo. Two hours had slowly passed before we heard the Cuckoo calling from the trees at the end of the field. Silence then reigned for another fifteen minutes before we saw it flying across the far end of the field but it seemed disinclined to come to the prepared perch, For the next twenty minutes it flew and perched amongst various trees around the field raising our hopes that it would finally come to the perch and at last it flew directly towards the perch, calling as it did and landed in a flurry of grey and barred white feathers at the top of the perch.

We were but three or four metres away from it but it showed not one iota of fear and stared at us with an expressionless yellow eye before setting about the mealworms. I had been told it would remain for some time on the perch, feeding on the mealworms, but after ten minutes it flew off. I wanted more. To be so close to the Cuckoo was great, but for only ten minutes after such a long wait, not so good from my point of view. Twenty minutes passed with the Cuckoo still hanging around in the nearby trees bordering the field although often out of sight.

Then suddenly and unexpectedly it called from right behind and above us.The beautiful, mellow two note call was incredibly loud. It had, as Cuckoos often do, silently and surreptitiously arrived in the top of a medium sized tree just a few feet behind us. Then it flew again to a more distant tree but after a brief spell perched on an exposed branch, flew once more towards us and landed on the perch.This time it remained for a good twenty minutes feeding on the mealworms, both on the perch and on the ground.When on the ground its short feathered legs were very apparent as the bird hopped clumsily in the grass, looking distinctly uncomfortable and it would remain motionless for up to a minute looking around, its barred underbody sunk in the grass. 

Its legs and feet were bright golden yellow and when perched on the logs I could clearly see the distinctive zygodactyl feet where the first and fourth toes point backwards and the second and third forwards.They share this characteristic with woodpeckers and parrots, and it is thought to be an adaptation for climbing and clinging. In the Cuckoo's case it is not quite clear why it exists but may facilitate the young Cuckoo in gripping the side of the nest as it ejects the host species young or eggs and later, when almost fledged, its bulk requires it to hang on to a nest that is on the point of collapse.It may also assist the adult female when she lays her egg in the host 's nest.

The zigodactyl feet are displayed to good effect in the above three images
Cuckoos have been written about from as far back as the time of Aristotle in 300BC and before the concept and existence of migration was known, the Cuckoos that came to us in summer were thought to change into Sparrowhawks in the winter. If birds possess charisma then the Cuckoo certainly qualifies. At such close  range I just stood and admired its pleasant combination of grey upperparts and barred underparts. Its underwings were also profusely barred and its long graduated tail had a series of white notches on the edges and tips to the feathers. The long pointed wings, long tail and slender elongated body render the Cuckoo larger in appearance than it actually is and its flight can be both accomplished and fast, often low to the ground, again similar to the flight of a Sparrowhawk.

Superficially it does look very much like a Sparrowhawk and this similarity is thought not to be coincidental. Originally it was considered this hawk like appearance was to intimidate potential host species but several experiments have shown that the Cuckoo's appearance evokes precisely the opposite reaction, with smaller species of birds violently attacking stuffed Cuckoos placed near their nest. Another possible theory is based on the fact that Common Cuckoos are mostly solitary, spend a lot of time sitting on relatively exposed perches and feeding in the open and the Cuckoo's hawk like appearance deters other raptors such as Sparrowhawks from attacking it.This would apply not only when it is in its summer quarters but also on migration and in its winter home in tropical Africa. 

I looked at the Cuckoo and wondered at this bird and the many lands it had crossed and the places where it had searched for food and slept in its life. According to one of the other people present today this is the third year this particular Cuckoo has been back, which is remarkable considering the dangers it and its fellow Cuckoos must encounter on their migrations back and fore across the Equator. Towards the end of this month it will be on its way south on another great journey. What does it see at night as it migrates over the great illuminated cities of Europe, thence travelling both night and day in a long journey of over three thousand miles including crossing the vast hostile emptiness of the Sahara which it must cross non stop or it will perish. Research on Cuckoos travelling from Hungary to Africa has found they cross the Sahara Desert at an average speed of sixty km per hour and at a height of between three to six kilometres! Having cleared the desert they then fly onwards across the tropics and the dense, trackless, humid and steamy jungles of central Africa to their southern Africa home, there to spend a peripatetic existence for a couple of months feasting on caterpillars in the rainy season before making another hazardous return journey to northern Europe. I can remember sitting in a friend's garden in northeastern Zimbabwe years ago and encountering no less than seven species of cuckoo including our Common Cuckoo, feeding on an epidemic of caterpillars in the shade trees but once the caterpillars were gone so were the cuckoos.

I looked at this bird and its life, another marvel of our natural world, somehow surviving the perils of a very uncertain future. I looked up to the sky and my thoughts travelled further to the horrific events of last night in London and Manchester two weeks ago and I felt so sad that such beauty and wonder can still exist in a world where there is nothing I can do about the senseless, pointless, cowardly barbarity and intolerance shown to my fellow men, women and children  I looked back to the Cuckoo and well ................

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