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.


Two new books: Spring and Raptors

I went shopping yesterday ….. and bought a couple of nature books. I was on a mission to buy the first one – ‘Spring’ which a compilation of nature writing by well known and new writers. I had read that it was coming out and was given the following endorsement / instruction from my former colleague and friend Matthew Oates,Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 18.41.27

‘Spring’ is described as ananthology for the changing seasons, it is published by Elliot and Thompson in partnership with the Wildlife Trusts. It contains contributions from 67 writers celebrating spring ranging from Shakespeare, Gilbert White, DH Lawrence, George Orwell, Thomas Hardy through to more recent people such as Melissa Harrison, Stephen Moss, Jo Cartmell and Lucy McRobert.

Spring Melissa Harrison

It also contains a piece from a new writer Elliot Dowding who I only know because he follows my own blog and frequently ‘likes’ pieces I write (thank you Elliot – people ‘liking’ my work encourages me onwards). Elliot’s contribution describes the emergence of spring as he travelled back from volunteering for the RSPB at Haweswater in the Lake District, on a train, to his native Sussex. The further south he went the more signs of spring he saw. Beautifully observed and described – I wish I could have written like that when I was 22! He is worth checking out – he runs his own blog ‘Wildlife and Words‘ which contains many well written,  considered and interesting pieces – see here. At this point I have only read Elliot’s contribution in the book.

For me ‘Spring’ is a book to dip in and out of – I will try and read one or two pieces a day and hopefully by my first cuckoo I will have completed the book. Excitingly volumes on Summer, Autumn and Winter are also planned – excellent. I guess I really ought to get a copy of Melissa Harrison’s book ‘At Hawthorn Time‘ too.

The second book I acquired today was bought on a whim, I saw it one the shelf at my local Waterstones in Exeter (the joy of browsing in a bookshop is much better than browsing on the internet I feel). It is called Raptor and to be honest I hadn’t heard of it before. I have had a lifelong passion for raptors (birds of prey) and when I was clearing my mother’s house after she died in 2014 I found a notebook I had produced when I must have been 11 or 12 where I had drawn and written about all of the UK’s raptors. I am fortunate I have seen all our species of birds of prey in the wild and that is that storyline running through Raptors. James Macdonald Lockhart gives a chapter to each of our native raptors and tells a tale of each in a specific place.

Raptors Lockhart

I only bought the book yesterday, so have only read a little bit so far. I have read part of the first chapter on hen harriers and the whole chapter on buzzards.

The book weaves together the story of Lockhart’s great grandfather, the famous Scottish naturalist Seton Gordon, the 19th century ornithologist William Macgillivray and his own travels in search of birds of prey.

The buzzard chapter is located on Dartmoor and described Lockhart’s quest for them in the Teign Valley – starting in Chagford  tracing the river back up to its source high on Dartmoor, wild camping (where I too have camped) and then descending downstream to the National Trust’s and the Woodland Trust’s land around Castle Drogo.

It is compelling writing and I am really looking forward to the rest of the book – a mix of history, ornithology, nature writing and personal experience.

Both books are highly recommended and to use Matthew Oates’ words – “Essential reading”.

Spring comes to Hembury Woods

I was at Hembury Woods on the River Dart yesterday morning. Took a few photos …….

Hembury 1The first wild daffodils are coming into flower – should be perfect in a week’s time

Hembury 2

 Standing inside the Iron Age Hill Fort looking back at the Norman motte and bailey (Castle long gone!)

Hembury 3 Still inside the Hill Fort looking down to the River Dart

Hembury 5European Gorse is in full flower

Hembury 6Part of the ring ditch around the Hill Fort

Hembury 7Hazel catkins

March is the month for rooks

Spring starts on two different days! The meteorological date is the 1st March and the astronomical date this year is the 20th March – so you can take your pick. See here for a full explanation. Either way it is now March and to me that means rooks!

Rooks nest early – they have probably already finished making their nests and are about to lay their eggs. Listen to Bill Oddie talk about rooks here.


Tweet of the Day with Carry Akroyd

A book written by Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss has just been published to celebrate the cult Radio 4 programme ‘Tweet of the Day’. To get a feel for the radio programme listen here to Bill Oddie talking about the ring ouzel.

The book ‘ Tweet of the Day’ is well written and contains lots of interesting anecdotes but for me it is made by the illustrations by Carry Akroyd – she has done 248 ‘pied vignettes’ and 36 colour pages. Here are a couple of ‘Dartmoor’ examples from the book.

Tweet of the day The cover of the book

Tweet of the day MarchThe peregrine pages – a pied vignette and a colour page

Tweet of the day WheatearThe wheatear


Tweet of the day Red grouseThe red grouse

In my opinion it is worth buying ‘Tweet of the Day’ simply for the illustrations!

Wicken Fen

I have been a big fan of Carry for years and when I left Wicken Fen for Dartmoor my colleagues asked Carry to paint a Wicken Fen landscape for me
– it is one of my most treasured possessions.

Nature's powersIf you like Carry’s work I can also recommend her book ‘Natures powers and spells’ – full of her paintings