Wednesday, 25 May 2016

The greater-spotted caterpillar muncher

Middle of May is traditionally the time when anything can, and does, turn up by way of waifs and strays. Often these are lbj's or waders, and this year has also brought lammergeier and pelican, but a classic spring bird is the great spotted cuckoo.
A close cousin to our cuckoo, this is normally found around Spain and Portugal in the Summer, so has seriously overshot it's migration. They are also reasonably rare in the UK - 2014 then back to 2009  for recent records then sort of once every couple of years. Often they are not truly switchable though as they don't always hang around.
So, when the reports came out of one on Portland on the 13th of this month my interest was piqued. It seems very happy and was reported most days munching away on brown-tail caterpillars at Reap Lane or occasionally going for a wander down to the Bill. I, however, was struggling to get away to see it. I even passed up on one chance when I could have gone, thinking a day when it had vanished was it's last then it popped up again when I was in Norfolk not seeing much. The final straw though was my brother-in-law Martin going and getting it on Sunday!
So, I took a day off and scuttled down to Dorset to see if it was still there. I started very early and got to the Bill about 8 and the GSC wasn't showing. I had to go back off the island though to make a work phone call (the reception on Portland is awful) which finished about 8.50 just as my phone buzzed with "Great spotted cuckoo still at Reap Lane".
It took me about 10 minutes to park up and I could see about 10 other birders staring intently at a small grove of trees and bushes. I grabbed my bins, 'scope and camera and almost legged it the hundred yards to where they were. "its not showing, was about 10 minutes ago though". Then the worried wait starts. Everyone else had already connected so they were starting to chat about other great birds they'd seen and weren't concentrating on the grove. What if it flew, or had flown? We were only covering one side and it could have popped out over the cliff!

About 20 minutes passed before we saw a movement in the bushes. You could just about make out a shape moving, wings being preened, a tail flicking.

Yes, it is in there somewhere! Finally, after it groomed itself it gave itself up nicely, sitting out on the edge of the bushes munching away on the hairy caterpillars.

The bird itself is a handsome beast. Cream coloured underneath with a grey cap and a brown spotty, striped back. In size it is about our cuckoo sized so when it moved in the bushes you could see it clearly. This was it's favourite place to go, because of the caterpillars. They must have been in their thousands as it's been eating them voraciously for almost a fortnight. Apparently they are quite toxic, and this is on of their few natural predators so it must have been a shock for them!
It may be though that their numbers are starting to decline, as it seemed it had to go to increasingly difficult to reach positions to get them.
 I can see a juicy one up there
 ooh that looks tasty
 if I just reach across from this twig
 got it but this twig is a bit small
 damn, nearly lost it
lets have lunch!

You get a better idea of it moving around from this short video on youtube

I watched it for about two hours, and it clearly had a pattern. Eat for 10 minutes, disappear into the bushes to digest for 20 minutes, repeat.
I left it to go and visit my mother-in-law for a bite of lunch, a very happy boy!
On the way back I stopped at Bolderwood in the New Forest. I was hoping for wood warbler, which I didn't find, but there were some lovely deer wandering through the forest, grey wagtails by a stream and a showy redstart feeding it's young.

With M25 traffic being awful I got back late but very happy. A stunning bird with a good back-up cast, a lifer and a grip back on Martin. What more to want!