Friday, 5 May 2017

Did that really happen?

A couple of weeks ago the newswires started carrying reports of a very showy cuckoo at Thursley Common. Now cuckoos are getting harder to see each year, as more of them are blasted out of the skies over Malta, so I put a mental note down to go there. Then, two days ago, two friends of mine, Paul Keene and Nigel Cox, both posted stunning photos of it. Decision made, I had to go soon. Nigel gave me very precise directions, which was useful as even though I know Thursley very well, this was one bit I would not have gone to normally. He also told me to get some mealworms so I nipped out at lunchtime on Thursday to get essential supplies.

I needed to get back not too late, so it was a 4.30 alarm and getting to Thursley not far after 6. Clear when I left Rickmansworth but cloudy when I got into Surrey. Still, a cup of coffee revived me and I set off.
As soon as I got onto the heath the birdsong was deafening. A redstart was giving it full chat from a nearby wood and I stopped for a few minutes to listen - gorgeous but a tad on the dim side deep in the wood.

You could also hear tree pipits calling from the silver birches, stonechats, chiffchaff, willow warblers, blackcaps, linnets, wrens, it was alive.
I was focused though on the cuckoo, and about a 15 minute walk got me to an enclosed area of scrubby grass surrounded by trees. This was the area. Quite soon another birder, also called Paul, arrived and between us we set the stage for the proceedings. This meant putting together a nice arrangement of photogenic logs at optimum distance from the tree we were hiding in and baiting it with copious mealworms.

It was still not 7 o'clock and the light was poor but we set up our gear and waited, soon being joined by a third member of our happy band, Colin.
For the first hour you could hear the cuckoo calling, probably a few hundred yards away, but a succession of dog walkers did not help the chances of it coming down. We were kept entertained though by a pretty good supporting cast.

The master of ceremonies was the highly territorial robin who thought it was his job to keep everyone else away from the mealworms. Thankfully he didn't succeed.

The most frequent visitors were stonechats. They obviously had a family hidden away behind us as they often carried the mealworms away onto the heath. In the pecking order they came below the robin, who still harried them, but above our next visitor, a gorgeous male redstart who was harried by everyone.

Between being harried he tended to come and sit in the tree above our head, or go to a nearby branch to give a lovely song. He also gave a very "sorry for myself" call every time the robin came and chased him off, sometimes as soon as he landed. He got enough to keep himself going. You may notice he is ringed, and Paul Keene worked out the number and contacted the BTO. It was ringed in Frensham last year on 25th June as part of a clutch of 3, so it's doing pretty well.
Finally, and slightly surprising, we had woodlarks coming down. They are pretty common here, but normally quite flighty and normally more on the heath, but these were pottering about on the grass, just as interested in getting nesting material as eating mealworms.

We were all waiting though for the main course, and at just before 8 we finally heard it calling really close. In fact, it was in a tree right behind us.

Now normally I'd be pretty pleased with having a calling cuckoo out in the open that close, but we were willing it down! It didn't disappoint, and within a couple of minutes took off and dived towards our logs. What followed was one of the most exciting and bizarre 20 minutes of bird photography I've had.
It came straight in and landed on our perch. We were a bit worried it might push it over, but not a chance. We were also being very careful to not move too much and spook it  - we were all sitting on the ground under a tree and so had our lenses trained on this spot anyway. The cuckoo though was totally chilled out.

   Things then got totally weird. It actually started calling, right in from of us. We all just stopped taking photos and looked at each other - is this happening, cuckoo's don't do this, they are nervous, wild birds!! I swear if you stitched together the size of the 3 grins at that moment it would have reached back to the M25. It kept going for long enough for me to switch to video and record it.
Click here for video of cuckoo calling
Clearly now getting a bit peckish and having seen the feast of mealworms laid out before it, the cuckoo flopped off the stick onto the floor.

I wouldn't say it was ravenous, it was carefully picking around. Again though, it was totally immune to us. Prior to this we all had our gear on tripods. When it came down we all gradually unhitched them and altered our stance to be lying down on the ground. Now, I'm not the most graceful of people but the cuckoo really did not care. We were moving around, talking, taking photos, changing lenses and you wouldn't think it knew we were there.
It then decided it had enough of that, and we were worried when it took off that it was going away, but no it just went back onto the stick again.

It all had to end eventually though, and this was brought about by a combination of jogger and dog-walker going past. The cuckoo had enough and flew off into the woods. Predictably I managed to miss it flying, which was annoying, but I am making a habit of this type of shot now.

Cue the three of us grinning like idiots and in a bizarrely British outbreak of emotion we all shook hands and introduced ourselves!! All of us agreed it was a very special and unique moment we had just witnessed. I headed off back home to actually do some work leaving the other 2 to it. As I left the field though the cuckoo was starting to call again, but from some distance off.
A stupendous few hours, 3 year ticks, but that cuckoo. I have a feeling I might have another bite of that cherry....