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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Same Nature: New Viewpoints

Sometimes in the course of my hobby as a birdwatcher I am conscious of moments of expansion in my experience and understanding of all things avian. With that increase comes a deeper and richer enjoyment of the pastime of a lifetime.

It is as if in walking the well-trodden corridors of my seasonal birding habits that a new door suddenly appears and opens, ushering me into a fresh and vital new experience of the natural world in which I live.

I am sure this is true not just of my hobby, but of others too. David Attenborough is a testament to the fact that 91 years on, new doors are opening with each new exploration, most recently the discovery of not just life in the deepest recesses of the oceans but also abundant, extraordinary life. Nature never fails to surprise and delight and is apparently boundless in its ability to do this. My own hobby is but a small part of that world, a lens through which I access that immense and beautiful whole.

Every autumn thousands of birds move across our skies as they either leave for warmer climes or arrive for the winter. It is a well known fact and even those with no natural interest will be aware of certain bird species vanishing at the end of the summer and others arriving. But do we ever see it happen? Is it possible to actually see the birds moving from A to B, after all there are thousands of them? The answer is of course yes, but you have to look up and preferably, but not essentially, you need to be on high ground.

This autumn past has seen and an extraordinary ‘visible migration’ across our skies involving many common birds such as woodpigeons, chaffinches and skylarks but also the less common as well – bramblings and redpolls. Already this autumn I have seen more of the latter two species that during the whole of last year. One bird in particular has arrived in unprecedented numbers – the chunky hawfinch. Usually a scarce bird seen perched high on a hornbeam or feeding quietly in the woodland leaf litter, most birdwatchers would consider themselves lucky to see even one or two in the year. However, this autumn, possibly as the result of storm Ophelia, hawfinches have been recorded in almost every part of the UK flying over in flocks, often totaling 50-100 birds over the course of a morning.

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A Hawfinch – photo by Steve Round

This movement has prompted a renewed interest in hilltop viewpoints with longtime favourites such as Parliament Hill in London’s Hampstead Heath providing daily reports of sightings. Most of the time the visible migration involves smaller birds making short journeys, maybe from one county to the next. The exciting element comes from the fact that amongst the commoner birds almost anything could appear – winter geese and swans, waders and birds you wouldn’t normally expect to see in your area. It does help of course if you are able to identify the birds by call, or to have someone with you who can, but the spectacle of continuous streams of flocks flying overhead is nevertheless worth witnessing. For me it is to be caught up momentarily in nature’s ageless seasonal shifts: just one movement in a great symphony of soft flight calls and wing beats, orchestrated across continents.

This year’s migration is largely over now, (although as I write this, hawfinches are still being reported across Hertfordshire daily), but the memory will stay with me. It is a ‘new room’ in my bird watching experience – it has always been there but now I have consciously ‘walked into it’ and begun to enjoy it. With it I have added a new verb to my vocabulary: “visi-migging” – the act of watching visible migration! It is another world with its own Twitter hashtag of #visimig that connects me with “visi-miggers” and their sightings across Britain.

As I parked my car on top of the Maltings Car Park in St Albans today (a kind of concrete hill and great viewpoint) I paused to observe the skies around me. A flock of over 30 fieldfare passed overhead and then a chaffinch, followed by 9 goldfinches. A peregrine patrolled, maybe hoping to cash in on the ‘visi-mig’. I left the car park but in just five minutes I had recorded 10 different species, but more importantly, like a breath of fresh air, I had connected anew to that wider world all around us that, in our busy lives, we are apt to overlook to our loss.

Please click on this link to read my article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser:

Nature Notes – Herts Advertiser 30th November 2017

 

Exotic Travellers in Herts’

Please click on this link to read my September 2017 “Nature Notes” in the Herts Advertiser: Exotic Travellers in Herts’

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European Bee-eaters – photo by Wim Hoek (Shutterstock)

 

Let Ivy Create A Buzz

Featured Image: Photo of an Ivy Bee by Tom Speller

Please click on this link to read my October “Nature Notes” in the Herts Advertiser:  Nature Notes – 6th October 2016

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The “Haircut Shed”

Leaving Our Shores – The Last Days of Summer

 

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Willow Warbler – photo by Steve Round

Please click on this link to read my September “Nature Notes” in the Herts Advertiser:  Nature Notes – 8th September 2016