Tuesday 19 June 2018

Adieu Colin the Cuckoo 17th June 2018

On Saturday a particular field in the middle of the heathland that is Thursley Common in Surrey was very much on my mind. The reason being that, soon, the adult cuckoos that visit Britain in ever declining numbers will be heading back southwards on their long migration to Africa. In fact some cuckoos have already departed these shores and are in southern France as I write, their presence confirmed by the tiny geo-locators that have been fitted to them and allow their every movement to be tracked.

With this in mind there was no time to lose if I wished to see Colin for one final time. Colin, I should explain, is a remarkably confiding male cuckoo that has returned for his fourth year to Thursley Common. His fame has spread over the years, so that now birders, photographers and the general public are all aware of him and come from far and wide to see him.

He frequents the trees around a large field on Thursley Common called Parish Field, where meal worms are put out by photographers to entice him to a variety of prepared perches that are set up towards one corner of the field and where Colin will visit at random times and at variable intervals ranging from as long as two hours to as little as thirty minutes, to feed on the mealworms at distances as close as a few feet. He is to all extents fearless of human presence, which makes it all the more remarkable that he has survived at least eight journeys back and fore to Africa, as I am sure in other lands people may not be inclined to view him so benignly and the perils of his migrations are many, not just from humans but also other natural predators.

So a slightly damp Sunday morning found me leaving the car at The Moat Car Park, near to the pleasant village of Elstead and taking the sandy tracks and wooden boardwalk out through the heather, birch and gorse of Thursley Common to Parish Field, and hopefully a rendezvous with Colin, if he was still there. The wooden slats of the boardwalk were being warmed by intermittent sunny spells and at this early hour had been undisturbed, so Common Lizards were using the warm slats to heat their bodies preparatory to facing another day. I counted at least four as I followed the boardwalk out onto the Common, each lizard coiled at the edge of a slat where it met the security of the damp grass into which they could drop at any sign of danger. Even thus exposed they were reluctant to move, still sluggish as they sought to absorb the heat necessary to energise them and this gave me the opportunity to photograph one and even show it to a passing family of trail bikers.

Common Lizard
I carried on along a sandy track as the song of Dartford Warblers came to me from the surrounding heather and gorse. Always reluctant to show themselves, apart from a brief check of me from the top of a gorse bush, the warblers were but dark shapes flitting away over the heather.

Last year Colin, by all accounts, was seen on Thursley Common for the final time on 19th June so time was running out and it was with some trepidation that I took the short track through the woods to Parish Field. My journey had been something of a gamble but on getting to the entrance gate to the field I was relieved to see three photographers already ensconced there but no evidence of Colin.

As I approached, Colin confirmed his presence with a loud sequence of 'cuckoos' from the surrounding trees. All was well. He had not yet departed.

One of the photographers greeted me and we chatted whilst awaiting the arrival of Colin. Intriguingly he told me that both he and his colleague were making a major life change to become professional photographer/guides specialising in wildlife and landscapes, with one moving to Pembroke and the other to Cornwall. I could but wish them well with their respective brave decisions. 

They had been here since seven and Colin, they told me,  had already visited twice. It was now getting on for ten but apart from hearing Colin calling from various locations around the field and brief sightings of him chasing another cuckoo he was conspicuously absent from the perches, enticingly set up for him to land on in the field.

There are those who are dismissive of a contrived situation such as this but this is the way amateur bird photography is heading. Amateur wildlife photography be it birds, insects or mammals is big business now and everyone seems to have a camera of one sort or another and why not, as it can record the moment and give much pleasure in later weeks, months or even years. Personally, I have no qualms in taking advantage of such a situation as this on Thursley Common, especially as it is free to whomever it is of interest. From a birders point of view, which is what I still regard myself as primarily being, it also has the advantage of giving me the opportunity of wonderful close up views of a bird that would otherwise be hard to see well and for extended periods.

In the absence of Colin we were entertained by the regular arrival of an equally confiding male Common Redstart, which came to collect mealworms to take back to his young in a hole in a silver birch beyond the field. His striking white forehead was the first intimation of his pending arrival on the perch as it could be seen hurtling towards us across the field from the wood where he had a nest, the white forehead looking disembodied, coming at us head on as he flew over the grass at high speed towards us. On arrival, he stood alert at the top of the perch with his russet tail shivering in characteristic redstart fashion, then dropping to the ground to collect two or three mealworms in his beak, before flying back across the field and into the woods to feed his young. To see a male so close is to appreciate just how beautiful they are in their breeding plumage and due to his very closeness you could almost feel the nervous energy and high speed pulse of his existence transmute itself across the few metres that separated us. The male visited many times but curiously we never saw a female. Maybe she was less confiding or had not discovered this ready source of food.

Male Common Redstart
Two hours had passed with nothing to get excited about apart from the redstart's visits. A Mistle Thrush flew low across the field, superficially looking like a cuckoo in flight and fooling one of the photographers but that was all. The Mistle Thrush dropped from a tree into the field to look for food but was wary of our presence and soon departed. 

Mistle Thrush
Meanwhile the weather became more unsettled with the threat of light rain which thankfully never materialised but it brought with it a chill wind. Then Colin finally decided to visit us and came, on fast and shallow wing beats, parallel with the tree line, to turn into the wind and fly low across the field to land just feet in front of us in a flurry of grey and white bars and spots. 

He sat there, unhurried and regarding us with that now familiar and expressionless sulphur yellow eye before dropping down to gulp up mealworms from the grass. He was with us for about ten to fifteen minutes and then flew off and that was the last we saw or heard of him for another hour and a half.

A couple more people joined us and another person left but we were never more than half a dozen at any one time. A Common Kestrel and Common Buzzard flew over the field and Colin, teasingly, called occasionally from some distant trees. Then, as before, silently and unexpectedly he made a similar approach to last time and was right before us once again. 

This time he remained a little longer, for about twenty minutes, and we had the intriguing sight of both him and the redstart in close company. The redstart was none too certain about the presence of the much larger cuckoo and kept up its constant plaintive alarm note  whilst keeping discreetly out of the way of Colin who seemed totally oblivious of the redstart. But there were young to feed and the redstart driven by the greater urge to feed its young, overcame its fear and  dropped down to grab some mealworms as quickly as possible and departed. 

Colin hopped around in the grass or just stood there doing nothing. He would fly back up onto the perch every so often and sit there too, again apparently  disinterested in anything, occasionally cocking his head to look at a wriggling mealworm in the grass below, but he was replete and he had no need to feed further.

Just as before he flew, suddenly and silently, away across the field and was gone into the trees. The day was now dull with grey skies and decidedly chilly, with the wind coming in strong gusts and I was getting cold but decided to wait for Colin's return just one more time. After half an hour he duly arrived and so we settled down for yet more communing with this remarkable cuckoo. At first he was a bit restless and flew back into a tree close by, as if uncertain but after a few minutes flew back down. 

Most of the time he hopped around in the grass looking for mealworms or perched above to digest them and, finally replete, he just sat, stoic and still for around fifteen minutes. This is probably what cuckoos normally do but when perched in trees. However, here he was, perched low down on a log, right out in the open, doing exactly the same. I noticed that when totally relaxed the feathers of his forehead and chin become looser and impart a different profile to his head. He must have been present on this visit for almost  forty five minutes, maybe longer, and one had to pinch oneself that here in an unremarkable field was a very remarkable cuckoo, sitting quietly on a log, offering an almost unique experience.

Colin the Cuckoo remained unmoved, as we walked, crouched or sat within feet of him, taking his picture from every conceivable angle, and finally just watched him, the cameras silent as there was nothing more to be done. 

As sudden as it was unexpected and with no warning he flew, fast and low to the trees at the far side of the field and was gone.

So farewell Colin and I hope you make it back here for another year. You have a long and hazardous journey to survive before you do.

Please click on any of the above images to view a larger version


  1. Wish I could have come!!! What a bird! (And I'd have liked another crack at the restart....)

  2. Great photos, great blog. It's good to see a Colin getting famous