Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Operation Cuckoo

We're just back from our annual pilgrimage to find a cuckoo in Norfolk.

They're back in the news today. BBC Springwatch, the Today programme and the Eastern Daily Press were among the news sources to report on a new effort to find out why one of the most famous sounds of the summer is on the brink of being silenced forever:

"Scientists from a Thetford-based conservation group have attached tiny satellite trackers to five cuckoos to try to find out why their numbers are declining so rapidly."

Let's hope it works. Because the cuckoo population is down by 65 per cent in my lifetime - in 45 years, the number of cuckoos in Britain has gone down by nearly two thirds.

Even since 1994 - the year Kurt Cobain topped himself, Nancy Kerrigan got clubbed on the back of the knee and Brian Horton marched Man City to 16th in the Premier League - the number of cuckoos has declined by 37 per cent.

No-one really knows why. It could be that changing farming methods in their African wintering grounds means there are less insects to eat.

It could be that the declining population of some British moths means there are not enough caterpillars to eat when the birds arrive back in Blighty.

It could even be that climate change means meadow pipits and warblers are breeding earlier so the cuckoo returns too late to find enough suitable nests to lay its eggs in.

But one thing is obvious - we'd better get out and hear them now while we still can.

We got lucky this year. We were leaving our holiday cottage in a rural village near Holt at 6.30pm on that warm Thursday evening to go to the pub when we heard one calling. Those two simple, unmistakeable notes that made everyone stop, listen and smile. It was still calling in the morning through the open window when we woke up.

But hearing one is one thing. Seeing one is a lot tougher. The call is incredibly difficult to pin down. It's as if the cuckoo deliberately throws its voice. You know it's there but it seems invisible. It's nearly as bad as the nightingale we heard but didn't see last month.

So on sunny and windy Friday morning we went to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve at Holme Dunes near Hunstanton. It's a fabulous place with, as they say, something for everyone: birds for the birders, dunes and a calm, if sometimes distant, sea for the kids.

And a half-hour walk through the marram grass was rewarded with first the call, then a sighting. It flew right in front of us about six foot above our heads. Looking like a small-headed hawk with its pointed wings, broad tail and slate grey back. And calling all the time as it flew.

I got the bins on it and had a fantastic view as it vanished into the tree foliage. It was a bit distant and very difficult to focus on but at least we got a snap for the record.

We toasted our success with a couple of pints of Woodforde's Wherry at the excellent Lifeboat Inn at Thornham.

When we got back to the village, there was no further sight nor sound of the holiday cottage cuckoo. Chances are it's already heading back to Africa.

But we did hear another at Hickling Broad NWT reserve on Saturday and another at RSPB Lakenheath Fen in Suffolk on Sunday.

So Operation Cuckoo was a mission accomplished again this year, thank goodness.

Let's just hope those Thetford-based scientists find there's something we can do to make sure it's successful for many more summers to come.

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