With the dramas of bird migration taking place everywhere, some of the tagged cuckoos we have been following are back from Africa.
“Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush….. all in a rush with richness……… all this juice and joy a strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning”.
From Gerard Manley-Hopkins’ poem ‘Spring’
A Willow Warbler, fresh back from Africa, has been giving me its first song adding its voice to the spring symphony as it starts in earnest. Birdsong is uplifting. We’re all the richer for ‘all this juice and joy‘. But how we wish there was more.
In our ancient woods spring has come with a carpet of bluebells.
“And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
And magic cuckoocall
Caps, clears, and clinches all—”
from GM Hopkins’ ‘May’s Magnificat’
The azure bluebells wash the woods ‘wet like lakes‘, but there’s one missing sound. That ‘wandering Voice’ echoing through the fields and woods with its two notes bringing romance and mystery, A mere two-note repertoire yet what an impact that ‘magic cuckoocall‘ makes. It has inspired poets, writers and musicians for generations and is part of our native folklore. It is the traditional sound of spring and early summer, comforting and reassuring that the natural world is alive and well.
But sadly all is not well. For apart from very occasional reports there is a sense that something is missing in our English spring countryside. The spring is full of richness, other birds are singing and the cuckoo flowers are out, yet the cuckoo’s voice is not there – spring seems incomplete.
“Thrice welcome, darling of the Spring!
Even yet thou art to me
No bird, but an invisible thing,
A voice, a mystery;
The same whom in my school-boy days
I listened to; that Cry
Which made me look a thousand ways
In bush, and tree, and sky.
To seek thee did I often rove
Through woods and on the green;
And thou wert still a hope, a love;
Still longed for, never seen.”
From Wordsworth’s poem ‘To the Cuckoo’
In recent years the British Trust for Ornithology has been tracking the migration of cuckoos. I’ve been following the satellite records of this year’s group of tagged birds with great interest over the past few days. You can imagine my delight to see that the cuckoo named ‘Knepp’, tagged on the Knepp estate here in Sussex last summer, was first to arrive back home. Hopefully his voice is being heard again on the estate now, soon to be joined by ‘Lambert’ another of the Knepp tagged cuckoos. One of the other birds ‘PJ’, has returned to his place of tagging in Suffolk. First tagged in 2016 ‘PJ’ has successfully been to Africa and back three times – quite an achievement for both the bird and its tracking equipment!
These are hardly ‘our’ cuckoos, but temporary guests for 6-9 weeks in the spring. These birds spend over 4 months wintering in the Congo basin area, but spend the other 6 months in their slow, stage-by-stage migration. Choosing several different routes southwards in July- August, on their return in March most move west to the West African coast. Here they feed up in preparation for the mammoth 50-60 hour flight across the Sahara, stopping off in Morocco and Algeria region and later in Spain and Portugal on their way north.
These returning cuckoos and my first willow warbler fresh back from Africa are but part of the unnoticed millions of epic dramas taking place at this time of year. Ever moving, restlessly driven by instinct and the pull of the seasons, these small creatures are making these incredible journeys, yet navigating back to their exact starting points. A wonder indeed!
This local lane would be an ideal place for cuckoos, perhaps they used to be here, but now they are long gone. We dream on of this romantic sound becoming again the indicator of spring across our countryside. We forgive this bird’s parasitic lifestyle and wish it back and wish it well. While we dream we will also be following future tracking with interest and I will, no doubt, be rooting for ‘Knepp’ again.
Post Script- ‘Larry’ caps all!
Since finishing this post I’ve just noticed the return of ‘Larry’ to the Forest of Bowland where he was first tagged in 2015. He has now completed 4 round- trips to Africa and back, covering about 40,000 miles – amazing bird!
There is so much more yet to be discovered about the wonders of bird migration. We could do with a lot more ‘Larrys, PJs and Knepps’ to grace our springs here in Britain. To see the latest news visit the BTO cuckoo tracking site.
Next time – ‘A Night with the Nightingales’