Friday 19 April 2019

Cuckoo Salvation 17th April 2019

I have suffered from anxiety and occasional depression for most of my life and am currently going through a particularly hard time due to a major change in my life and circumstances which has dragged me down into the murky depths of despair. Usually I can adequately cope with the effects and my current heightened anxiety is not serious enough that I find I have reached  that situation which I have found myself in before, where I am totally incapacitated and unable to function, but it is enough to make me feel not as I would wish. I try to conceal it from others with sardonic humour where possible and have found another antidote is to keep myself active, every day, even when my favourite interest, birding, seems more like an imposition than a pleasure. 

Mark and Adrian, two birding colleagues of mine, had decided they wanted to come and see Colin the Cuckoo and asked my advice. Although having seen Colin just  four days previously I decided to join them as their company would be a  welcome diversion and for a few hours I knew that my battered spirit would be lifted from its current low ebb.

So it was that, today, I found myself driving south to Surrey and the quite wonderful Thursley Common. The sunny morning and the concentration of driving combined to also provide therapy to the darkness possessing me. I met Mark in The Moat car park at Elstead at noon and we took to the tracks across the common, traversing a boardwalk populated by a number of Common Lizards, one being a remarkable shade of green rather than the more normal brown, sunning themselves on the sun warmed  wooden slats of the boardwalk.

Arriving in the field that acts as the stage for Colin's random appearances we joined about ten other people and learned that Colin had not been particularly co-operative so far, having only visited once some hours previously. I stood in the field, my face caressed by the sun and we chatted amongst ourselves as we anticipated the arrival of Colin to gobble up some more mealworms. He was currently perched nearby, high in a tree and for over an hour he sat there, calling cuckoo every so often and attending to his plumage. 

Even the Common Redstart and European Stonechat that had been regular visitors on Saturday only put in a couple of appearances each and it was really just a pair of obliging Woodlarks that provided any alternative entertainment as they wandered around the grass looking for stray mealworms that the cuckoo had failed to find.

European Stonechat-male

Finally, Colin made a move and took flight. At first he appeared to be heading for where the artificial perches were set out for him and a plethora of mealworms awaited. But no, he flew in that distinctive flat backed, wing flickering  cuckoo flight, away over the trees surrounding the field and far out across the further heather and gorse expanses of the common.

Periodically his faint cuckoos could be heard coming from distant pines as he moved around what was presumably his large territory. Another hour of inactivity on our part passed slowly, very slowly and eventually, slightly bored and feeling tired, I lay on the grass and slipped into a doze on the warm ground. It was not unpleasant and in light sleep I found yet more solace from my troubles.

I was awoken by a fellow birder or photographer announcing that Colin had arrived back in the trees adjacent to the field and the cuckoo confirmed this by uttering a sequence of loud breathy cuckoos.Ten minutes later he at last deigned to pay a visit to the perches and landed in front of us to consume mealworms at the same prodigious rate as he had on Saturday.

A rather tatty Mistle Thrush landed nearby, also attracted by the mealworms, and the similar sized cuckoo eyed it warily but the thrush bounced off in the opposite direction and all was calm once more in Colin's world.

Mistle Thrush

The cuckoo remained at ground level for about twenty minutes, feeding, and then flew back to his large tree where he sank his body low onto his perch to digest his meal. Fifteen minutes later he flew once more, and again it was far out over the common beyond the trees, to call distantly in the sunshine and blue haze of the late afternoon.

It was now 5pm and I needed to set off for home. Normally all the anxiety and depression would flood back into my head but I felt a lightness of spirit as I made my way back to the car park and the worst of my troubles were banished, probably not permanently but enough to allow me a window of peace to regain some equilibrium and mental energy to deal with the inevitable return of my depression.

It will lift eventually. I know this from previous experience. There is always hope and for today Colin and the company of two like minded birding friends have unwittingly helped me to cope.

One day at a time.

Tuesday 16 April 2019

Catching up with Colin 13th April 2019


In 1912 the English composer Frederick Delius wrote a lovely and beautiful  piece of music called 'On hearing the first Cuckoo in Spring.' It is a gentle, reflective tone poem and although the tune is based on a Norwegian Folk song 'In Ola Valley' it sounds and to my mind is quintessentially English. Listening to it you can imagine a cuckoo in some deep leafy wood calling its unique 'cuckoo' and the listener musing over a life lived in less turbulent times. 

I doubted whether there would be much chance of quiet reflection when I next visited Colin the Cuckoo who has returned for a fifth year to Thursley Common in Surrey, as his fame and popularity has now spread throughout the land and people come from far and wide to see and photograph him. Any visit to see Colin was bound to be in the company of many others, some of whom would not have the same sensitivities.

Bearing this in mind I was unsure if I really wanted to stand for a couple of hours listening to the infuriating blather from my fellow humans about camera settings, the light, birding holidays and regurgitating interminable lists of everything they had seen in minute and tedious detail. However the benefits just about outweighed the detriments so I resolved to head south to Thursley Common where this remarkable cuckoo,  nicknamed Colin for I know not why,  has returned, defying all the odds that he faces every year on his hazardous migration from Africa, to arrive unscathed in the very same tree surrounded field as in the years before. It is a remarkable story but must be the same for every cuckoo that returns to Britain and is yet another manifestation of the natural wonders of this planet we exist on but treat with such apparent disdain and are slowly destroying.

Colin the Cuckoo was first noticed to have arrived five days ago and already many photographers and birders with cameras have made the annual pilgrimage to see him. Some took it to ridiculous lengths and photographers have arrived dressed in full camo gear or with deck chairs and a range of artificial perches. Colin shows little concern about the large numbers of people, with sometimes up to forty clustered in the field, ranged around one particular corner of the field and viewing specially erected perches, liberally baited with meal worms and to which he comes at intervals and can be watched down to just a few metres

Today I arrived, by choice, later than is my usual time, in mid morning at around 11am, but this was fortuitous as many of the crowd had decided to depart once Colin had flown in a couple of hours  earlier and consumed a prodigious amount of mealworms. I was told by those present that Colin had only visited  on that one occasion so far this morning.

From my experience in previous years I knew that Colin would  return when he again felt the need for more sustenance. I waited with about fifteen others but in the cuckoo's absence  there was plenty other birdlife to entertain me in the meantime.

A pair of Wood Larks were  strutting around on the grass and these were my first for the year. Such bland understated birds, dressed in buff and streaked brown feathers that perfectly blend with their habitat of sandy heathland, the birds made exceptional in possessing an enchanting song.

A male Common Redstart was singing in the nearby trees and later availed itself of the plentiful supply of mealworms put out for the cuckoo, arriving at high speed from the trees on the opposite side of the field, and perching on the various logs, posts and other contrived perches put out for that ultimate cuckoo shot. Common Redstarts, well the males at least, are very beautiful birds, their rusty orange tail quivering for all its worth, a manifestation of the nervous energy that radiates from this species.

Common Redstart
As if this was not enough a pair of European Stonechats were also taking advantage of  an easy meal, flying in from a nearby patch of bracken and bramble to perch and then drop down to grab a mealworm.

Male European Stonechat

Female European Stonechat
The male, even at this early stage, had a large white rump and neck patches and I found myself wondering if this was more typical of the sub species rubicola that you find on the continent than our our bird hibernans which is a mite darker and shows less white on rump and neck, especially at this time of year. Who knows? Our artificial boundaries are not those recognised by nature.

A man in a wheelchair arrived, pushed by a colleague. He looked familiar and I realised it was Frank Gardner, the BBC's Security Correspondent and a keen birder. He was shot and paralysed in 2004 by terrorists in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia whilst reporting but has refused to allow this to deter him from his interest in birds. I could but admire the strength of will that got him to this field, as it could not have been an easy journey, the tracks across the common being mainly soft sandy soil.

On the following Monday Frank Gardner was interviewed by John Humphreys on BBC Radio Four's Today programme about his experience seeing Colin

Frank Gardner
Time moved on and Colin arrived in the trees on the other side of the field and sat there perfectly content.
Looking across the field to the surrounding trees. Note the gate which is another
artificial perch to entice Colin.Where it came from no one knows!
Cuckoos normally spend a lot of their time just sitting quietly, hidden in trees and Colin was true to form. A short burst of half hearted 'cuckoos' kept us on our mettle but he soon subsided into silence. For around forty minutes he remained in his silver birch tree, a grey and white, ill defined image surrounded by yellow catkins and thin. lichen encrusted branches still to come into leaf.

Finally, silently and unheralded, he swooped down and came towards us on fast moving, flickering wings, to land on one of the artificial perches.

Here he remained for a minute before dropping to the ground to gobble up mealworms. A perfection of smooth grey upperparts and white barred underparts, offset by golden yellow eyes, legs and feet. On the ground he was almost clumsy. moving with heavy hops to the next mealworm and then sitting in contemplation before seizing another. For almost thirty minutes he remained on the ground, eating mealworms, then after a period of just sitting on the ground doing nothing, without warning he departed back to the line of trees from whence he had come, there to sit once more and digest his meal for the next hour or so.

This was a signal for many of the assembled throng to depart and just half a dozen of us were left. It was obvious to me that Colin the cuckoo would now sit in his tree until he was hungry again and then the whole episode that had just passed would be repeated.

This turned out to be precisely what transpired as presumably there were no female cuckoos around this early in the year to be worried about and so Colin's priority was food and with a ready and endless supply of mealworms donated by the photographers he just sat in a tree nearby until hunger called once again.

The cuckoo visited four more times during the afternoon, sometimes perching in a silver birch just above us, slumping onto his perch in repose and then when hungry, turning to face us and eventually flying to the ground, where in the soft, late afternoon sunlight, he looked quite superb.

Towards the late afternoon when numbers were down to just four of us another photographer arrived clutching a branch each of gorse and flowering cherry. When we queried what on earth he was carrying all this flowering vegetation for, as if we did not know, we were told he planned to create an artificial shot of the cuckoo perched amongst the flowers. Another professional photographer who had been with us throughout the day and who worked for an international photo agency took exception to this and mildly rebuked him for being foolish and for a while it looked as if it was going to get a bit heated. I remained silent as these two photographers exchanged their divergent opinions but eventually it calmed down and on my suggestion a truce was formed whereby the photographer who had been here all day got one more go at photographing Colin on his 'normal' perches and then the new arrival could erect his floral perch and try his luck.

In fact the results of the floral perch, although totally artificial, were from my point of view quite  a nice touch, albeit totally contrived, and made a change from all the images I had taken earlier  and, even better, everyone was now happy and a slightly ridiculous  and mildly unsettling contretemps was all forgotten and with that I departed for home.