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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Marshland Symphony

Sometimes you just have to go with a primal urge and mine was simple: to be out in a marsh at midnight. The urge was so strong that it over-rode all thoughts of getting a good night’s sleep, of what I’d feel like later that day or any other reasonable objection my mind tried to raise. Part nostalgia and part hunger for adventure meant that come 10pm I was heading out from St Albans down to into deepest darkest Kent for what I hoped would be a magical night of nature’s little-heard orchestra.

This urge was not entirely without origin as, in my university days, I had been part of a mad bird-watching team that each year had attempted to see how many species of birds they could record within a 24-hour period in Kent. Our bonanza year had come when we discovered how advantageous it was to start in the dark at the midnight hour in the middle of the Stour Valley marshland.

It is hard to describe the din as you step out of the car upon arrival – or out of the taxi in those days, leaving a very puzzled and worried-looking taxi driver peering out at us as we shuffled off into the dark clutching binoculars and torches. Nightingales burst out their song from what seemed like every bush while Cetti’s Warblers shouted out across the reed-bed.

It was no different tonight but, as before, the most startling sound came from a non-avian and non-native resident invader to our marshes, the Marsh Frog. Not afraid to hide their amorous intentions the choir of frogs provided a sonorous carpet of croaking rolled out across the whole marshland. Stepping quietly lest a thousand bulging eyes turned to look at me, I headed out across the marsh.

I had no need of a torch as the whole auricular experience was played out under beautifully clear skies with the marshland bathed in a soft, pale orange light. Disney could not do better and I half-expected to encounter some other-worldly beings winging across the reeds or tip-toeing on the still pools. The magic I had hoped for was alive and well and, never more awake, I continued out along the path to Marsh Hide.

I paused every now and again, trying to find spots where the Marsh Frogs weren’t quite so deafening. This then allowed me to pick out some of the individual instruments in the marshland orchestra. A Tawny Owl hooted tentatively from a nearby copse while Reed and Sedge Warblers sang their scratchy tunes from the depths of the reed-bed. Overhead and out of my sight, Snipe ‘drummed’ in courtship dives, their outer tail feathers, vibrated by the accelerated air, producing a very appealing, wavering sound – perhaps akin to someone sniggering into a clarinet or bassoon.

I also picked out the ventriloquistic reeling of a Grasshopper Warbler probably with its little pink legs on a willow branch perched just above the reeds swaying its head back and forth to pour out its unique song to all near and far. Straining my ears I also listened intently for another gem of the marsh that I hoped to be able to pick out. Not one, but two Spotted Crakes, had been heard by other birders over the last two weeks giving their strong and insistent whip-lash of a call and thereby indicating their rare presence. A smaller and speckled brown version of the Moorhen, seeing the bird in the dark was out of the question so I closed my eyes and summoned all my abilities to separate out each sound I could hear to see if I could distinguish a crake calling from the general ensemble. Despite my best efforts I eventually had to concede that even Crakes have to sleep and maybe they would start singing nearer dawn. However, I had another venue in mind for the dawn chorus so would sadly not be around to hear them this year.

The Cuckoo who classically ‘comes in May and sings all day’ also, I discovered, sings all night too…but obviously that doesn’t rhyme! A lot of other diurnal birds also, consciously or unconsciously, added to the general hub-bub – Wood Pigeons (who I’m convinced have little control over what they are doing at the best of times) occasionally panicked and crashed around in the trees while Common Terns chattered restlessly as they roosted.

Tuning my ears to a further range I realized that, beyond the immediate cacophony, I was listening to a famous reed-bed bird, an accomplished wind-instrument and a master of camouflage. The Bittern, almost impossible to see during the day thanks to its perfect reed-like plumage, gives itself away at night with its ‘booming’ call. The call is far-carrying but subtle enough to miss. It’s a bit like the sound you get when blowing across an empty glass bottle spout. In its heyday a bird of common folklore with colloquial names such as ‘bog bumper’, ‘boom bird’, bottle-bump’ and ‘bull of the bog’ but now not so well known perhaps as its numbers have declined.

I lingered in the reed-bed wonderland for a little longer, my ears doing over time but with one eye on the clock as I didn’t want to miss my date with the woodland dawn chorus in the north of the county. Finally and reluctantly, I left the reed-bed with my own brief contribution to the pre-dawn overture – tyres on gravel track with gently accelerating diesel engine. The quiet of the driving seat seemed deafening all of a sudden as I left behind the busy nocturnal world, the magic now broken by the need to follow the road.

I hope to return, maybe next year, but for now, that primal urge has been satisfied in a baptism of myriad sounds and sensations – the symphony of the marsh and every bit worth staying up for!

Jan 30th – Seasonal Calling

Of course, an obvious theme for my blogs at this time of year must surely be a ‘looking forward to spring’.  But let’s just see, I’d hate just to be a written version of Springwatch.  I did however, notice yesterday that the Chaffinch has just started making its bid for a place in the great dawn chorus come April/May time.  Admittedly it’s not quite his full flourish of notes but rather more a sub-song.

Sub-songs are not uncommon and even the familiar Blackbird can be heard warbling out some practice notes from the depths of a bush in mid-winter.  Like us, a bit of practice seems to be needed before going on stage or out on a limb, so to speak.

While birds always have a variety of calls in addition to their main ‘song’ – scolding and warning notes, flight calls and so on – I’ve always found it interesting that there are also calls linked specifically to a change in season.  The most famous of these is perhaps the Cuckoo who even has a rhyme to its name in which, having sung all day in May, come June it ‘changes its tune’ or some would say ‘forgets its tune’.

Last year, at dusk on 13th March at a local reed-bed, I had one of those rare moments to witness another more unusual bird giving its own version of a seasonal call.  Three Bitterns, usually perfectly camouflaged amongst the reeds and usually only seen as singles, flew high above the reed-bed heading off east.  This was the start of their migration from their winter home to their breeding grounds and as they flew they gave a strange throaty, gull-like call – a migration call.

Previously, I’d only known Bitterns to ‘boom’ from the depths of the reed-bed – strange enough in itself and a sound that you only pick up if you tune your ears into it.  But this new call, signalling the start of a seasonal journey was loud and clear and I felt somewhat privileged to witness the moment of departure.