An imaginary cuckooland

Today, had I not been otherwise engaged, I would have gone to Dartmoor to search for cuckoos. I might have gone to Emsworthy Mire or to Gidleigh Common by Scorhill Farm or even to Throwleigh Common near to Great Ensworthy. Last year I listened to and saw cuckoos at these places, but sadly this year I will have to imagine them but I know they will be there!

To get my mind running I am assisted by some poetry – no less a person than William Wordsworth, describing his joy at hearing a cuckoo return to the Lake District.

O blithe New-comer! I have heard,
I hear thee and rejoice.
O Cuckoo! shall I call thee Bird,
Or but a wandering Voice?


O blessed Bird!
the earth we pace
Again appears to be
An unsubstantial, faery place;
That is fit home for Thee!

And John Clare, a contemporary of Wordsworth writing about cuckoos in his Northamptonshire village of Helpston.

The cuckoo, like a hawk in flight,
With narrow pointed wings
Whews o’er our heads – soon out of sight
And as she flies she sings:
And darting down the hedgerow side
She scares the little bird
Who leaves the nest it cannot hide
While plaintive notes are heard.

The cuckoo however, is a marmite bird, despite the millions of years of its evolutionary journey where it has re-invented itself as an exploiter of other birds, its habits repulse others. A paradox bird – the herald of spring and new life on one hand and the cruel deceiver taking life on the other.

Ted Hughes captures the latter view.

The cuckoo’s the crookedest, wickedest bird,
His song has two notes but only one word.

He says to the linnet:  Your eggs look so ill!
Now I am the doctor, and here is my pill.”

Within that pill, the cuckoo-child
Crouches hidden, wicked and wild.

He bursts his shell, and with weightlifter’s legs
He flings from the nest the linnet’s eggs.

Then bawls to the linnet:  “Look at me, Mam!
How quickly I’ve grown, and how hungry I am!”

She thinks he is hers, she is silly with joy.
She wears herself bare for the horrible boy.

Till one day he burps with a pitiless laugh,
“I’ve had enough of this awful caf.

And away he whirls, to Cuckooland,
And leaves her to weep with a worm in her hand.

What is so curious about this poem is the species of bird that Hughes has chosen to become the victim  of the cuckoo – a linnet. Very occasionally cuckoos will lay an egg in a linnet’s nest but it is a fatal mistake for the cuckoo as well as the linnet. Linnets are seed eating birds whilst cuckoos need a diet of insects; the cuckoo chick hatches, ejects the linnet’s clutch of eggs and then starves to death. Hughes was a good naturalist and a keen observer of nature, maybe I have missed something, maybe it’s just creative licence.

Part of the inherited evolutionary genius of the cuckoo is its ability to mimic the egg patterns of its host in both colour and markings. What makes this all the more extraordinary is that cuckoos parasitise a range of host birds. Wordsworth’s cuckoos’ would lay eggs in meadow pipit nests whilst Clare’s would have chosen the dunnock. In areas where there are extensive wetlands cuckoos utilise the nests of reed warblers. These three species of passerine birds have very different coloured and patterned eggs and as a result cuckoos have evolved into host-specific races.

My own interest in cuckoos developed when I worked at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire and met the legendary Professor Nick Davies who used the reserve as his laboratory to study cuckoos and their interactions with reed warblers. Nick is a brilliant academic, a lovely, lovely man and very generous with his time. Ecologists will know of him as well through his textbook ‘An Introduction to Behavioural Ecology’.

In his book ‘Cuckoos – cheating by nature’ he wrote

Without a moment’s hesitation, the warbler bows deep into the enormous mouth to deliver the food ….

I am amazed by what I have just seen …

Why, when confronted by a young cuckoo, so different in appearance and far too big to be one of their own chicks, are the warblers apparently so stupid?

I am amazed by the cuckoo chick too. How does it stimulate the little warblers to bring enough food?

And why do adult cuckoos abandon their young and entrust them to another species?

In his book Nick goes on to answer these questions, based on his own research at Wicken Fen along with his numerous PhD students and other academics around the world. It is the most amazing story – if you love nature, are puzzled by evolution and curious about animal behaviour you will love this very readable book – it will make lockdown time fly by.

And now …. I have been to ‘Cuckooland’ without leaving my house.


A day on St Agnes

Spent the day on St Agnes yesterday

On the tripper boat …

Gugh Bar joins At Agnes with Gugh – the most famous tombolo in the world!

Pleased to see a small colony of kittiwakes surviving on Gugh – Britain’s most endangered seabird as a result of climate change and rising ocean temperatures.

Looking over to Gugh

The Devil’s Punchbowl on Wingletang Down

Cuckoo on Wingletang Down

The Nag’s Head

Male wheatear –  a passage migrant on Scilly

A colony of fulmar

An unnamed granite outcrop on Castella Down

Male Stonechat

The Troytown maze

A rock pipit

Pretty much my favourite island

John Clare

Melvin Bragg’s ‘In our Time’ featured the 19th century ‘peasant’ poet John Clare – it is well worth a listen. A poet with an unprecedented eye for wildlife and a man who lived through the enclosures of the Northamptonshire Commons which no doubt played a part in the mental health issues he faced later in his life.

You can listen to the radio programme here.

Here is one of his poems – The Cuckoo – he captures the bird and its natural history in words in a way that we would only know 200 years later as a result of scientific research – remarkable.

Cuckoo 1

The Cuckoo

The cuckoo, like a hawk in flight,
With narrow pointed wings
Whews o’er our heads – soon out of sight
And as she flies she sings:
And darting down the hedgerow side
She scares the little bird
Who leaves the nest it cannot hide
While plaintive notes are heard.

I’ve watched it on an old oak tree
Sing half an hour away
Until its quick eye noticed me
And then it whewed away.
Its mouth when open shone as red
As hips upon the brier,
Like stock doves seemed its winged head
But striving to get higher

It heard me rustle and above leaves
Soon did its flight pursue,
Still waking summer’s melodies
And singing as it flew.
So quick it flies from wood to wood
‘Tis miles off ‘ere you think it gone;
I’ve thought when I have listening stood
Full twenty sang – when only one.

When summer from the forest starts
Its melody with silence lies,
And, like a bird from foreign parts,
It cannot sing for all it tries.
‘Cuck cuck’ it cries and mocking boys
Crie ‘Cuck’ and then it stutters more
Till quick forgot its own sweet voice
It seems to know itself no more.


Tigers on the wing

Two of my favourite moths are currently on the wing.

Jersey tiger
This is a Jersey Tiger that was in my trap last night. According to Waring, Townsend and Lewington in their Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain this is a National Notable B species – meaning it occurs in less than 100 10 kilometre squares. It is however common along the south coast of Devon and it has now spread up as far as Sussex. In some places such as Exeter it occurs inland.

Jersey tiger 2
As can be seen in this photograph is has bright red/orange underwings.

Garden tiger 2
This is a Garden Tiger – the one I photographed on Bryher last week in the Isles of Scilly

Garden Tiger
Again the species has bright red/orange underwings which act as a would be deterrent to potential predators. Butterfly Conservation has carried out some research on the status of the Garden Tiger – they found that between 1968 and 2007 the species had declined by 92% – a species in real trouble.

Garden tiger caterpillar 1
This is the caterpillar of the Garden Tiger – often referred to as ‘wooly bears’. These are one of the favourite prey items of the cuckoo which is another species in major decline. Work being carried out at Exeter University might show that the two are connected and that the intensification of agriculture in recent years has played a negative role.

I’d be interested to know if anyone has seen a Garden Tiger so far this year?

Emsworthy’s bluebell lawns

The bluebells at Emsworthy are coming into full flower – it is an impressive and joyous sight.

Emsworthy bluebells 4
Emsworthy is a nature reserve owned and managed by the Devon Wildlife Trust – see here for location and details

Emsworthy bluebells 1
It is located west of Haytor and Saddle Tor on the road to Widecombe

Emsworthy bluebells 2
Look out for the orange barn – that is where you need to head

Emsworthy bluebells 3
The spectacle is all the more enhanced by the calling of the cuckoo – zoology and botany hail our spring

A lammergeier on Dartmoor – the fog of twitching

I spent most of yesterday trying to see the lammergeier, a large vulture with a wingspan of 2.75m, which had been seen on Dartmoor the day before. This is a very rare bird for Britain – indeed it is the first record of the species for the country. However all did not go to plan and I drew a blank.

A lammergeier By Richard Bartz, Munich aka Makro Freak, via Wikimedia Commons

The bird was first spotted last week in mid Wales and was videoed crossing the Bristol Channel last Thursday

The name ‘lammergeier’ appears to have come back into fashion – in the mid 80’s and 90’s it was replaced by ‘Bearded Vulture’. Lammergeier translates from the German as the lamb hawk and such a name was considered an impediment to its conservation so it was changed. It is a very rare and threatened species in Europe and has been successfully re-introduced into the Alps and the Pyrenees. It is a very specialised vulture as it predominately feeds on the marrow from the bones of dead herbivores.

It is mentioned in the Bible (in Leviticus) as a species which should not be eaten by people (presumably on account of it diet) and legend has it that a lammergeier was responsible for the death of the ancient Greek playwright and poet Aeschylus. Lammergeier are fond of feeding on tortoises which they pick up from the ground and then drop onto rocky ground from a great height to break them open before feeding on them. Aeschylus had a bald head and legend has it that a lammergeier mistook his shiny head for a rock and dropped a tortoise on him killing him instantly……

I subscribe to a service called Birdguides which provides detailed updates on the location of rare birds in Britain.

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 21.51.07
Here is a screen grab of the Dartmoor records

The specific language used by Birdguides is important and needs some interpretation to the uninitiated. “Immature at Yar Tor” – the first record is unambiguous – the bird was seen there at 15.33. A little later the sighting becomes ‘reported’ i.e. it may not be correct….

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 22.01.26The ‘reported’ status is then further questioned as “others believe this sighting relates to a drone”. I must say I have never seen a 2.75m drone on Dartmoor.

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 22.37.40The record update then becomes ‘reportedly’ which means it is probably not correct….

Nevertheless I spent most of Tuesday around Soussons Down near to the Warren House Inn. When you are trying to re-locate a first for Britain such nuanced language is lost on you until you have time to reflect …..

My time however was not entirely wasted I did manage to photograph a few of the commoner and more classic Dartmoor birds.

Tree pipit 2
This is a tree pipit singing on top of a hawthorn bush at Soussans

Tree pipit 3

I spent half and hour watching the bird carry out its classic display – flying high into the air and then descending whilst singing onto the top of the bush. Listen to the song here (courtesy of Tweet of the Day)

Stonechat female 1
A little later a female stonechat appeared on the same bush on the way to its nest to feed its young

Meadow pipt 1
Back at the Warren House Inn area I photographed this skylark

Meadow pipt 2
Another view

As I was standing around at Soussons yesterday the lammergeier was seen over Princetown and North Hessary Tor (6 miles away) but unfortunately I didn’t know this as I had no phone reception. I am now waiting for ‘news’ before I head out again.

There are two other essential Birdguide words that would be twitchers need to know.

‘Purported’ – a purported record is one that has been submitted but it not believed. However it is reported in case it turns out to be correct and no one can then be accused of suppression.

‘Putative’ – a putative record is slightly more credible than a purported one but one would be well advised to allow the sighting to be firmed up before travelling hundreds of miles across the country to see it.

So we have a transition of bird sighting terminology.

Purported -> Putative -> Reportedly -> Reported -> Seen

Well worth remembering in the future.