The cuckoo’s rhythmic call is arguably one of the most recognisable bird sounds. Made famous in clocks and by the earliest spring reports in newspapers, everyone knows the cuckoo’s voice, but could you identify one?
I’ve photographed cuckoo on a few occasions, and when I’ve shown images to non-birding people I’ve nearly always had the same response: ‘I didn’t know a cuckoo looked like that, it looks more like a bird of prey.’ And to a certain extent it does, with its long wings and tail, raptor-like flight and slightly down curved bill, indeed, even experienced birdwatchers have often mistaken the cuckoo for a sparrowhawk while spotted in fast flight.
Cuckoos arrive early in this country, but they don’t stay here very long; the male finds a mate, the female finds a nest that she can lay her eggs in — throwing out the host parent’s eggs in the process — and then there is nothing left for the adult birds to do. The rearing of the young bird is all done by the raided nest’s parent, usually a small species such as reed warbler or meadow pipit, so the adult cuckoo then only needs to look after itself.
Once the breeding is over, most cuckoos migrate back to tropical Africa, much earlier than other visitors, such as swallow for example, and the young cuckoo is left to fend for itself once it has left the nest of the host parent. So cuckoos may have a lovely, friendly, welcoming song, but really, they are quite a lazy, predatory bird, relying on other birds for their existence.
Last September, a juvenile cuckoo took up a short residence at Parkgate, on the Wirral, about 40 minutes from my home. I’ve only photographed this species once or twice before, and this was very late in the year for a juvenile to still be around, so a quick trip through the Mersey Tunnel found me on site, proudly carrying my new 500mm Nikkor VR lens.
As I walked along the path towards the area the bird was favouring, I could see a couple of birders up ahead of me, presumably watching the bird. Sure enough, they were. So, I set my tripod up and went to mount the lens; whoops, my lens was so new that I’d forgotten to attach a mounting plate to it, so I couldn’t use it on my tripod. I just hoped the VR worked, as I would be handholding it, or at best resting it on the tripod.
The bird was on display very nicely; feeding on caterpillars as it moved around a small area, stopping to perch on fence posts, branches and a wire fence. I cursed silently as I tried to lean the lens on the tripod, nonchalantly trying to appear as though this was the usual way I always took my photos. Thankfully, the lens was up to the challenge and the images of the cuckoo looked like some of the sharpest I’d taken throughout the day. But after a short while, my arms were aching with having to hold such a heavy lens, and so I had to take little bursts of shots in between resting (and pretending to check the images on the screen).
A couple of other photographers arrived.
I wasn’t surprised, cuckoo is a popular bird, as well as a difficult species to photograph. To have one so close and showing so well was a real treat. Despite being unable to use my tripod properly,
I was still pleased with the afternoon’s session and planned to return a day later complete with lens fitted with mounting plate. However, the bird didn’t stay around much longer — instead, no doubt carrying on with its migration to warmer climes, and no doubt preparing itself for returning next year to mate and begin the cuckoo’s fascinating breeding cycle all over again.