Sunday 7 June 2020

Colin and Friends 5th June 2020

Colin is a Common Cuckoo and not just any cuckoo but a nationally famous cuckoo that attracts photographers, birders and anyone else who has a mind to come and see him in his favourite field at Thursley Common in Surrey. Frank Gardner, the BBC's Defence Correspondent and a keen birder came to see him last year on a Saturday and spoke about him on national radio the following Monday and Simon King was seen photographing Colin last week.

In fact Colin has become something of a legend as not only is he ridiculously confiding but has been coming back to the same field and area of the Common for six years now and assuming he was born and fledged the year before he first returned, he is now in his seventh year of life. The maximum recorded age of a Common Cuckoo is 6 years 11 months and 2 days, so come on Colin you are almost there! When you consider the formidable hazards he faces on his migrations to and from southern Africa it is even more remarkable that he has reached such an age, especially as his confiding nature surely makes him more vulnerable to predators.

I knew that Colin had returned this year but had so far resisted the temptation to go as I have been to see him twice in preceding years. The virus lockdown initially put paid to any thoughts of driving to Surrey and then when that was relaxed, frankly I had lost any enthusiasm to go. I had in the meantime, found my own confiding bird in the form of Reg the Sedge, (don't we birders love a bit of alliteration), a showy and confiding Sedge Warbler at Farmoor Reservoir, which was much nearer to my home.

Undoubtedly a Common Cuckoo has the advantage over a lowly Sedge Warbler but I was not to be tempted until Moth and Jane went to see Colin yesterday and came back telling me how well he had performed in his usual field and had been present for over an hour, resulting in some very classy pictures from Moth. A supporting cast of Common Redstarts, Woodlarks, European Stonechats and Dartford Warblers was not to be ignored either.

My resolve duly dissolved and I set off for Thursley Common, which lies just outside the small village of Elstead. My departure was not too early as Moth had told me Colin only showed up at 1123 on the morning he was there. Jane is very precise about these things!

Thursley Common National Nature Reserve, the largest remaining fragment of heathland habitat in Surrey has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons, as on Saturday May 30th it suffered a devastating fire that has burnt 150 hectares, which is almost 50% of this National Nature Reserve and SSSI, to nothing. 

No one knows yet what caused the fire but certainly the dry conditions due to the  long spell of hot weather made the reserve very vulnerable to any carelessness on the part of the increasing numbers of public visiting the reserve. For it to happen at the height of the breeding season for birds and many mammals is a tragedy and it is thought that between 200-300 species, both flora and fauna, have been affected. Thankfully the area Colin frequents escaped the fire.

I arrived in The Moat car park at around 9.30am and set off to follow the usual route to Colin's field but in only a couple of hundred metres came across a blackened, devastated heathland that made my heart sink. The boardwalks, where formerly lizards and dragonflies basked, were burnt to nothing but ash and great swathes of the heath were just blackened char with an all pervading pungent smell of burnt wood hanging on the wind. The leaves of many trees were scorched and withered while other trees were not so fortunate and were just blackened stumps. The fire must have raged with incredible intensity and the heath, baked by days of sunshine, made a fertile place for the fire to take hold. It had come almost up to the road and the properties adjacent to the Common were in grave danger of being consumed but thankfully the fire was stopped in time but the damage to the reserve is incalculable.

So with heavy heart I made a wide detour around the fire ravished areas to reach the gate that led into the familiar field and where Colin would hopefully fly in to please us all. In previous years there could be up to forty or more people ranged in a semi circle around the various staged perches for Colin to settle on. Photography and photographers hold sway here and birders such as myself come second but that's alright, although I always feel on the periphery as huge lenses and endless chatter about photographic technicalities dominate the proceedings.

Today I joined just six other persons, only two being what I would call die hard photographers. One of them told me that Colin had already visited and gorged himself on mealworms and subsequently had hung around for an hour. I knew this meant that Colin would not be returning soon, probably not for hours, so prepared myself for a long wait.

I was not too downhearted as the customary male Common Redstart was coming to take advantage of the mealworms chucked onto the grass by the photographers to tempt Colin and it is always a pleasure to watch and photograph a male redstart as they are so colourful and photogenic. 

As usual the redstart showed little fear of us and despite its nervy, tail quivering disposition helped itself to the copious supply of mealworms, flying off with a beakful to feed its young in its nest in a hole in a tree.The female never comes here and I can see no reason why not, other than she may be less bold. 

Common Redstart - male
An hour passed and the two photographers departed and it was just me and a lady with her refreshingly well behaved dog.We chatted as a Woodlark strutted around in front of us, gathering food for its young. Slightly more wary than the redstart, it still came relatively close. A Green Woodpecker yaffled from the oaks surrounding the field and a Mistle Thrush flew over us.

Colin called from the dense greenery of the surrounding trees but remained unseen. Hopes rose that he might be due to visit but he fell silent and when he called again he was more distant. The time dragged on as the redstart continued to come regularly for food but there is only so many images you can take and hours you can watch before it begins to pall.

By way of variety a female European Stonechat arrived and promptly chased off the redstart. It then proceeded to help itself to the mealworms and flew off with some to feed its young, somewhere on the unburnt heath behind us. We never saw her again or indeed a male. A brief but welcome appearance from one of my favourite birds.

European Stonechat female
Two hours into my vigil and the lady with her dog went to the corner of the field, through the gate to a Treecreeper's nest in a tree just the other side of the gate, there to watch and photograph the adults bringing food. I was on my own with just one other person  for company who, presumably bored, wandered off in the other direction.

Another half an hour passed, not unpleasantly as I relaxed under the warm sun in the sheltered field and reflected there are many worse places to be on such a day.

I sat on a log and at just before 1230 Colin flew over my head and into a silver birch tree behind me. This was it. I knew he would be down in a minute or two for the mealworms and sure enough he landed on the post especially erected for him so as to give everyone the maximum opportunity for photos but I was now the only one here.  It was all a bit contrived but who would say no to being within a few metres of such a bird? The pleasure was all mine as Colin eyed the ground from his perch for wriggling worms and flew down to swallow a few.

There is no hurry with Colin, seize a worm, gulp it down and then stand for a while on short yellow legs with his long tail resting on the ground, contemplating his next victim. 

He was with me for twenty minutes. I tried to attract the attention of the lady looking at the Treecreepers but she did not see me. I waved to the other person away to my left but he did not see me either. Too late the lady finally saw I  was photographing Colin and came back but all she saw was Colin departing for the trees. She decided to wait and see if he returned.

I knew Colin, now stuffed with mealworms would not be returning soon but said nothing to discourage her. I went over to the Treecreeper's nest and watched the adult birds coming to a tiny cleft in a dead branch.The nest was secreted behind some bark that was coming away from the dead tree and completely hidden. They are such diffident little birds, completely silent, their tiny forms dwarfed by the tree trunks and branches that are their world. When they flew in with food for their young it was just a flicker of movement amongst a background of moving leaves and you had to be quick to find them, clinging to the bark as they edged towards their nest.

The Treecreeper emerging from its nest which is under the bark below its tail
Their plumage is patterned so  that it perfectly matches the irregular patterns of the tree bark and constant ripples of light and shade that pass across the tree trunks.

I returned to the field to sit and wait for Colin. Some other photographers joined me and eventually Colin flew in and we had a repeat but rather brief performance of his earlier visit. Colin then flew to the nearby silver birch tree and disappeared amongst the myriad leaves. He then commenced calling but every other 'cuckoo' was rounded off with a curious gurgling splutter as if something caught in his throat. I have heard cuckoo's make this sound before but have no idea why.

We waited for a short while and then Colin appeared at the edge of the tree, peering out as if from behind a curtain, to make his entrance, but this time the curtain was one of drooping leaves, his yellow toes grasping thin twigs that looked too fragile for his weight. He was obviously intent on flying down.

Here was an opportunity to get a flight shot as he swooped down to the pole. For once it worked and I got an image of him landing on the pole. 

As was his custom he then sat on the pole for a minute or two before flying down onto the ground to gobble up yet more mealworms.

Ten or so minutes of feeding was enough this time and he flew back into the trees but not too far away. More photographers commenced to arrive but there was never more than six or seven of us and I got the sense from the others that afternoons were considered the best time for Colin 'to perform.'

A serious photographer, judging by his equipment, joined us carrying a pole covered in artificial moss and asked if he could substitute this for the wooden pole as he considered it was more aesthetic. To me the original one seemed fine but hey ho let's go along with his request and there were no objections from the rest. One contrived perch for another hardly mattered.

He replaced the wooden pole, scattered some mealworms around and Colin promptly returned to guzzle some more but I noticed he took longer and longer between eating each mealworm and would sit on the ground for minutes on end before making a move. 

Eventually he flew up to perch at the top of the pole, hunched his head into his shoulders and prepared for a long period of sitting doing nothing. Something that cuckoos like to do.

After a little while the same photographer asked if we objected to him chivvying Colin from his reverie. Apparently  this man was local and a regular here and knew Colin's habits intimately. He told us Colin would fly up into the adjacent silver birch and then when he scattered more mealworms would fly back down to perch on the pole, thus giving an opportunity for those much desired flight shots. This was getting ridiculous. A performing Cuckoo. Whatever next?


The plan worked of course and then it was repeated with Colin showing not the slightest concern. Flying at the last moment from his perch into the birch tree and then flying back down again once the man retreated after baiting the ground with mealworms. In fact the man had hardly time to get back to his camera set up before Colin would fly down.

I think the pleasure of seeing a cuckoo so close and for such a prolonged period outweighed any concerns I had about the totally contrived situation. I was not amongst birders here but participating in another adjunct of birding, not unfriendly by any means, but more than a little strange.

I left at just after four in the afternoon with Colin finally departing for some distant trees and obviously not planning on returning soon.

Will he make it back for another year? I do hope so although I doubt I will go back to see him.

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