Wednesday, 27 April 2016


On 31st May 2014, on a very misty, very early morning, I caught my first adult cuckoo. He was a stunning bird, and as well as having a metal ring with a unique number this cuckoo was also fitted with a satellite transmitter as part of a BTO project. I wrote a story about that morning called To Catch a Cuckoo, and at the end of that post I asked where would this cuckoo go, how would he fair during his migration south and hopeful return? The bird was named Stanley by generous sponsors Derek and Maggie Washington. 

The magnificent Stanley

Well, by June 2014 Stanley was off! He was over the English Channel and heading south. It is one of the interesting results the tagging project is showing, male cuckoos in particular do no hang around, and very quickly start heading south. By August he was across the Sahara and recovering from the crossing in the dry regions of Nigeria and Cameroon. By September 2014 he had moved further south over the Equator into the rainforest block of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Here he stayed until starting his northerly migration in January 2015. Heading northwards through West Africa, Stanley arrived in southern Spain in April 2015 and returned to the UK by the end of the month. He was the third of the tagged cuckoos to arrive back, but perhaps a little oddly arrived in Cornwall before heading back to his breeding grounds in Norfolk. Once again Stanley did not stay long, and by mid-June he was in southern France heading south. He arrived in Africa by the middle of July, and by September he was back in the Congo rainforest in the same area where he had spent the previous winter. By March 2016 he was well on his way north and west, and the race with the other tagged cuckoos was on! Who would be first back this time? Early April and Stanley raced over the Sahara and then the Mediterranean, hot on the heels of Vigilamus who was leading the race of the tagged cuckoos. April 21st 2016 and Stanley had won the race! He was the first of the tagged cuckoos to return to the UK in 2016! Whoop! Even more interesting is that once again he first touched down on English soil in the south west! This time Devon. By the 22nd he was back in Norfolk and near to Cranwich!

Such wonderful data is coming back from the satellite tagging, more that we could get from just metal ringing alone. The map on the BTO’s website shows that Stanley tends to head straight down through Italy and across the Sahara on his way south. While on his return he heads northwest into West Africa before heading across the Sahara and back through southern Spain. So far he always seems to make landfall in southwest England before heading northeast to Norfolk.

In the time since I caught Stanley and fitted his metal ring things have changed for me. My life has turned upside down, in a very good way, with the arrival of my little Robyn. But I have continued to catch and ring birds. I have not however held an adult cuckoo in that time.  Stanley, of course is not the only cuckoo to be back in the UK and Norfolk. My first cuckoo of the year was at our ringing site, near to Stanley’s breeding ground, on the 17th April. Then just yesterday, at the next ringing session again a cuckoo could be heard. This time, with the Robyn alarm waking us extra early we took the opportunity to set a net in the hope we might catch another cuckoo. It was not looking great, with the net remaining empty all morning and with a cuckoo tantalising us in the trees nearby. In typical fashion though the last check revealed a rather large looking grey bird in the bottom shelf. For the first time since Stanley almost two years before I had an adult male cuckoo in the hand! While this cuckoo does not have a satellite tag to tell us all the fine details of his movements, he does have a metal ring which if recovered will certainly contribute to the knowledge we are building of these incredible birds. 

The equally stunning cuckoo caught today...

What a bird!
Information on Stanley's journey so far was used with the kind permission of the BTO. 

Monday, 11 April 2016

Lynford Water

It had been a pretty dismal day, raining on and off, not really inspiring a desire to go outside. By the afternoon things seemed to be improving, the rain had stopped and while clouds still hung in the sky it was brightening. The clouds no longer looked ominous blue grey but were brightening to a more silvery grey with a hint of sun beyond. Now we ventured out, heading into the Forest and to Lynford Water. Right next to the arboretum, Lynford Water for many years was used for gravel extraction, during which numerous flint artefacts including handaxes were discovered. Not only that but in 2002 the remains of at least nine woolly mammoths, a woolly rhino, a bear and reindeer along with Neanderthal flint tools were discovered!  What they had discovered was a site where Neanderthal people had butchered mammoths some 60,000 years ago! It is one of the most important Neanderthal sites ever found in Britain. When extraction ceased completely a few years ago the site was restored with the creation of a variety of habitats including dry acid grassland, floodplain grazing marsh, reedswamp mosaic and reedbeds. Not only that the site was opened to the public. To be totally honest it is not the prehistoric history of Lynford Water that now brings me to the site, although it is exciting to think of woolly mammoths and Neanderthal humans living here. These days with the habitat restored it is the bird life which brings me, and many others to Lynford Water.

Barley enjoying Lynford Water. Photo Lee Barber

Wandering down the path from the car park, the pine trees of the Forest open out to reveal a grassland bounded by patches of dark green pine, some recently felled areas which are a tangle of branches, scrub and gorse, and the lakes themselves with small sandy beaches running into the smooth, dark water. From a stand of birch comes the song of a recently returned willow warbler; our first Norfolk swallows dip low over the water; the sound of siskins comes from the tall dark pines surrounding the open grass. The distinctive song of a chiffchaff reveals a bird carrying nesting material, pieces of reddish brown dried leaves stick out from its tiny beak. A little time spent watching reveals the start of a nest being woven amongst the grass at the base of a small tree amongst low gorse bushes.


We walk around the open grassland, its soil a little churned in places, small prickly plants of gorse and bramble, poking through the open soil and yellowy green grass. Yet more bird song, robins in trees, dunnock in the bracken and debris of the clearfell, and in the open grassy meadow… the call of woodlark. On a small thorny bush sits one of these beautiful, cryptically coloured birds. Once again a little time spent watching this bird and listening reveals a nest. The only reason we search for and approach the nest is because we have a Schedule 1 licence to do so. No one should approach a nest of this species without such a licence. Larks, as with many ground nesting species are notorious for leaving the nest at an early age, even before they can fly. An adaptation to help escape predators. These three were already starting to wander just outside of the nest cup itself, even though they had another week or so until they could fly.  A quick call brings a colleague with some kit and the chicks are not only ringed, but also colour ringed, adding to the project being carried out on this species in the Forest. The colour rings means that the birds will be uniquely identifiable in the field without having to recapture them. It is the first woodlark nest we have ever found on our own and not only that, based on the age of the chicks it is the earliest woodlark nest of the year in Breckland!

Three woodlark chicks. Photo Lee Barber