Where are all the Cuckoos?

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The Cuckoo can still be heard across the Ouse Washes, however, all is not well with this iconic summer visitor. During the last twenty-five years we have lost almost three-quarters of the breeding population nationally.

cucko 008 e (Edmund Fellowes) (A)

Photo by Edmund Fellowes/ BTO of a Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)

The decline has been greatest in England, with the Cuckoos in Scotland holding their own, or even increasing slightly in some areas, whilst those that breed in Wales are losing ground but not to the same extent as those in England.

We know quite a lot about Cuckoos whilst they are here in the UK once they leave the UK much of what they do is a mystery. Or, at least that was the case until scientists at the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) fitted tags to five birds in Norfolk in the spring of 2011.

The five birds were given names; two of them, Chris and Martin, after the BBC Springwatch presenters, Chris Packham and Martin Hughes-Games. They both set off, Chris in mid-June, and Martin at the end of June, which at the time surprised BTO scientists as it was thought that they might head off towards the end of August.  Both headed south through Italy, across the Mediterranean and the Sahara Desert spend the winter in the Congo Rainforest – prior to this the winter location was a complete mystery.

In February 2012, both birds started to head north but instead of taking a straight line 5,000 mile journey back to Norfolk, they headed into West Africa before crossing the Sahara once again –  effectively adding another 2,000 miles to their journey. From here they made their way back to the UK but Martin only made it as far as south east Spain, where he ran into an unseasonal hail storm and didn’t make it any further. Chris, however, made it all the way back to Norfolk.  Chris is currently still on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, where he has spent the last four summers but could leave for the Congo Rainforest any day now. He is the only bird remaining from the first five that were tagged in 2011. He has been joined this year by birds from Sherwood Forest, the New Forest, Sussex and Dartmoor, and the BTO are currently following 23 Cuckoos as they make their way south.

Cuckoo with tag

Photo by Phil Atkinson/ BTO of a tagged Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)

As I write this, Thursday 3 July, only four birds remain in the UK, including Chris. The others are spread across Europe, with birds in France, Spain, Italy and Bosnia-Herzogovina. Not all of them will make it safely to the winter quarters in Africa, the crossing of the Sahara desert is particularly tough, but everyone can follow them online as their journeys unfold by visiting www.bto.org/cuckoos

* This is the first of a series of guest blogposts by Paul Stancliffe of the

British Trust for Ornithology (BTO)