Have you heard the Cuckoo Clock?

In April come he will,

In May he sings all day,

In June he changes his tune

In July away he will fly

And in August, go he must!

This old rhyme sets a natural calendar for spring and summer based on the Cuckoo’s activities.  It is now July when ‘away he will fly’, but I wonder how many of us have seen or even heard a cuckoo this year?

I haven’t, at least not locally in the St Albans area.  I have enjoyed them in the oases of RSPB nature reserves in Kent, Suffolk and Somerset but not on my doorstep – and yet they used to call in my garden, a herald of spring and a sound of summer.

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The Cuckoo Cuculus canorus – photo by ERNI (Shutterstock)

The sad truth is that Cuckoos are in decline and over the last 20 years the number of birds visiting our shores has decreased by over half.  This iconic bird – famous for its simple song and infamous for its cuckold ways – is in danger of vanishing from our cultural experience.  No other bird is perhaps as imbedded in our cultural conscience as the cuckoo that has for centuries kept time and marked the spring and summer seasons.

From Aristotle, through Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth and beyond, the Cuckoo has been given mention and lent it’s name to many colloquialisms such as ‘cuckoo’s shoe’ for bluebells, ‘cuckoo’s leader’ for the wryneck (now extinct as a British breeding bird) and ‘cuckoo spit’ – the frothy blobs of foam found on plants in the springtime.  None of these – bluebells, wrynecks or cuckoo-spit – have anything to do with the cuckoo other than timing – they all coincide with the Cuckoo’s arrival and of course, the arrival of the much looked-forward to springtime.

But our cultural ‘cuckoo clock’ is fast becoming merely a cultural memory – a redundant reference akin to Beyoncé singing about ‘pagers’ or the hip-hop duo OutKast telling us to “shake it like a Polaroid picture”.  Craig David sings, “you left all your money on the TV” but I can’t help feeling that, just like our modern ultra-thin TVs are no longer the place we can reliably put things on, so the Cuckoo has ceased to be a substantial part of our natural furniture.

Spring has come and gone and, by and large, we did not see the Cuckoo come, sing all day or change his tune.  This has led the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) to set up The Cuckoo Project to investigate why Cuckoo numbers have declined and specifically to ask the question what happens to Cuckoos when, come July, away they fly to Africa?

Now, thanks to developments in technology, Cuckoos are being satellite-tracked on their journeys across Europe and down into the impenetrable swamp forests of the Congo basin of central Africa where they will over-winter.  Already the data has revealed that Cuckoos must decide on one of two routes:  a western route via Spain and Morocco or an eastern route via the ‘boot’ of Italy. Most birds it seems have a preferred route while a few alternate routes year to year.  The western route to date however has shown a lower survival rate.

One Cuckoo, nicknamed ‘Chris’ after the TV presenter Chris Packham, successfully made seven trips across the Sahara before meeting his end.  The tracking project is still live on the BTO website and individual Cuckoo’s progress, each with their own nickname, can be viewed on a day–to-day basis.  True to the rhyme, this year, most of the adult parent cuckoos are leaving or have already left and are now headed south through France.

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The BTO’s Cuckoo Tracking Project – find out more here

As I write this article, ‘Cameron the Cuckoo’, having left the New Forest on 7thJune arrived in northern France on 12thJune.  Even keener to get going was ‘Raymond the Cuckoo’ who has already reached northern Spain and has obviously decided to take the western route.  ‘Larry’ on the other hand is in the Balkans, clearly preferring the eastern route. Not so eager to leave is cuckoo ‘Carlton II’ who remains at home in the coastal marshes of Suffolk.

It is a fascinating project and viewing the live maps of the birds’ progress south one cannot but help feel concerned for the cuckoos’ safety and wellbeing. Hopefully each bird will return successfully next spring but with each mile they provide valuable data.  Much is still to be learnt about ‘our’ Cuckoos but the research is beginning to fill in the picture as far as the risks facing Cuckoos are concerned.

Hopefully, with more than just the summer snapshot we have had of Cuckoos in the past we will now be better placed to conserve their numbers.  Maybe, a little like the Polaroid camera, Cuckoos will after all enjoy a comeback in Britain and their simple summer soundtrack will be current again!

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here

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Make your Love of Nature Count!

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here: Nature Notes – January 2018

I have to confess to having a love-hate relationship with statistics – perhaps this is true of most people? Statistics, numbers, charts and tables have the power to petrify us in boredom and the subsequent analysis can lead to mental paralysis! And yet all that collected data is powerful – it tells us things we need to know and informs us about action we need to take. This of course is no less true when it comes to data about wildlife.

I have always subconsciously resisted serious data collection and analysis when it comes to my love of nature. For me it is like reducing my marital relationship to how many times I’ve bought flowers, washed up or provided a taxi service for the kids. I love nature, like I love my wife, and any form of serious statistical analysis feels reductionist and, well, unromantic.

Nature, for me, has always been a kind of romance with magical moments of discovery, vast swathes of beauty and complexity, and layers of mystery and wonder. The words of the biblical proverb resonate with me, “There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a young woman.” (Proverbs 30:18-19)

And so I have been a reluctant latecomer to data collection and analysis, but like so many things I have initially resisted, it has proved rewarding in its own way. Regularly recording and submitting my observations to organisations such as the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) via BirdTrack their online data collection portal, has demanded of me a more rigorous approach to nature observation – not just vague incomplete lists, but times, dates and numbers recorded over regular, sustained periods.

All of this has been counter-intuitive to me but it has deepened my understanding of the places I go and the wildlife that inhabits them. Regular detailed observations have revealed patterns and behaviours that I wouldn’t otherwise have appreciated: the Little Owl’s favourite tree; the best time to watch gulls amassing in their pre-roost flocks and when they will have left for their final roost; and more recently, the feeding habits of Hawfinches – their love of hornbeam seeds. This in turn has led me to become expert in identifying hornbeam trees as this winter, as never before, finding hornbeams gives you a very good chance of finding that elusive finch!

While I never want to lose that sense of open-mouthed wonder when it comes to the natural world there are also moments that give pause for thought when we realize all is not perhaps as it should be. In the last thirty years, House Sparrows, Spotted Flycatchers and Swallows have vanished from my garden, both as breeders but also even as visitors. It seems that, in the same way that we occasionally have to sit down as a married couple and work out how to make improvements when things aren’t working, we must also stop and work out our relationship with nature.

Birds and wildlife that might feel scarce in our area may turn out to be thriving elsewhere, however, the data is often revealing a decline on a national scale. Swallows and House Sparrows really are vanishing and Spotted Flycatchers have all but gone. The observations that I have made in my own garden over the years suddenly connect me to a wider world of nature and a greater understanding for what may be at stake for the birds visiting my garden.

This weekend (27th-29th Jan) is the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch and an opportunity for everyone who has a garden, however small, to do some serious (but not onerous) data collecting and contribute to the latest snapshot of the state of our nation’s birdlife. By spending just one hour recording what you see in your garden and submitting the data to the RSPB you will be making sure the national picture that emerges is as accurate as possible.

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Last year’s survey revealed that Greenfinch numbers have declined by 66% in the UK over the last 10 years.  The species may now be added to the conservation ‘Red List’ of most endangered species in the UK.  Photo by Steve Round

Equally it’s an opportunity to connect with your nearest green space and one that often gets overlooked most of the week, especially at this cold time of year. Gardens by their very definition are enclosed spaces but not to the birds that visit. Instead they are vast arterial networks of greenery providing food, shelter and migratory routes for thousands of birds right across urban spaces.

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So switch off the TV for an hour and tune in instead to the natural world on your doorstep – you may be surprised at just how many birds visit your garden in an hour. For more information and to participate in the Big Garden Birdwatch visit: www.rspb.org.uk

A Taxing Time of Year – Profit or Loss?

Please click on this link to read my October 2017 “Nature Notes” in the Herts Advertiser: A Taxing Time of Year – Profit or Loss?

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The humble Wood Pigeon – photo by Steve Round

 

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The now extinct Passenger Pigeon – illustration by Nicolas Primola

 

Turn Your Eyes to the Skies!

Please click on this link to read my April 2017 “Nature Notes” in the Herts Advertiser: Nature Notes – 20th April 2017 (photo of Osprey by Steve Round)

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A Hoopoe – a rare discovery at Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits in 2013 (photo by Steve Round)

The Herons of Verulamium Lake

Please click on this link to read my March 2017 “Nature Notes” in the Herts Advertiser: Nature Notes – 23rd March 2017

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Grey Heron & chicks at nest in Verulamium Park – photo by Andrew Steele

 

Feb 24th – Sparrows and Butterflies

Yesterday spring sprung.  The first Blackcap sang in our garden.  The odd bee got busy and buzzed around.  A few butterflies fluttered by.  Here’s one I snapped enjoying the warmth of the sun:

A Peacock butterfly enjoying the sun 24th February 2014

A Peacock butterfly enjoying the sun 24th February 2014

I too ventured out to enjoy the sun, without a coat and almost without a care.  I was met with birds a-courting and some fast-track birds checking out viable nesting holes.  In particular and very welcome to behold were a number of Tree Sparrows busy chipping and chirping in some old elms.  I am very fortunate to live on the door step of one of the few remaining Tree Sparrow colonies, a species that has experienced a marked decline in this country in my lifetime.

Today was as if the clock had been wound back with at least eight individual birds along their favoured hedgerow.  Their distinctive calls reminded me of years gone by when it was not so unusual to expect a Tree Sparrow or two in an old half-dead elm tree.  However, they all but vanished and thanks to the efforts of local groups and landowners putting up nest boxes, farming less intensively and putting out feeding stations, a few local birds have clung on and continue to stay all year round.  This year looks to be a good year with up to thirteen birds being observed over winter.

Our other English sparrow – the House Sparrow – is also experiencing its own decline.  We used to have them in the garden but now they too have gone.  If you encounter a flock on a walk through a farmyard you might be forgiven for thinking they must be common.  However, these flocks are often isolated and the national picture has been one of decline.  The BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) is in a race against time to discover exactly why this is the case.

I still hope to attract them back to the garden.  There is a small flock in a housing estate across the park behind our house.  I’m hoping that the growing number of ducks and chickens in the garden might encourage them, like our friends, to view the place more as a farm than as a garden, with free food on offer!