Lockdown Birding Part 9

Common Cuckoo flying past the balcony (Martin Kelsey)

Today's protagonist signals his presence by the best known of all bird sounds. Its repeated, disyllabic call carries far, onomatopoeic and easily imitable: "cuc..koo". I look south across to the slope of the Sierra de los Lagares and spot a distant long-tailed bird. It flies on an unwavering, horizontal trajectory, its body held likewise, propelled by strong downward stokes of determined pointed wings. The almond tree in front of the house obscures my view. As the Common Cuckoo reappears it has come much closer and is tracking  a wide arc that will take it cruising around the amphitheatre of our coombe. It calls as it does so. An announcement of possession. I have seen the female around as well, on patrol not for rivals but for opportunities. Our cuckoos close to home with have access to none of the classic Common Cuckoo hosts, as known through studies elsewhere: Reed Warblers, Dunnocks or Meadow Pipits. None of those species nest nearby. Once I watched a fledged Common Cuckoo in the garden being fed by Stonechats. The pair of Stonechat that I can see from our balcony are now busy feeding fledglings, but perhaps the cuckoo might strike on their second brood. Sardinian Warblers might also be a target.
Sardinian Warbler (Martin Kelsey)

The lockdown has now completed four weeks and we are heading for another two weeks, at least. Week-by-week, the numbers of species I have recorded has slowly increased: 45 species in Week 1, 49 species in Week 2, 52 species in Week 3 and 53 species in Week 4. In total the lockdown list now stands at 67 species.

Week 4 (6th - 12th April) saw the arrival of Bee-eaters, with many lockdown birders in the region almost simultaneously catching this wave of small parties sailing high overhead, detectable by their short, rolling whistles. Some of this birding network are setting up equipment to record sounds right through the night, to then analyse using easily accessible software the following day. Analysis of noctural migration (nocmig) has become very popular across Europe, especially during this lockdown. Many waders and duck are migrating at night, as are species like rails and crakes, calling as they do so. The results coming from such home-based studies are extraordinary, full of surprises. The basic equipment required does not need to be expensive, although sadly under my circumstances, I have no spare spending money at the moment!

Intrigued by what people are detecting, I have resorted on three nights to take a more old-fashioned approach, namely to sit outside for an hour or so at night (I have done so from midnight onwards) when it has been dry and calm. On the first occasion last week, I sat below a marbled sky, dappled clouds backlit by the pink Moon. Nightingales and Little Owls were joined by Tawny Owl and then the abrupt toots of Scops Owl, calling from close to the house. Just before heading back inside, a mechanical-sounding rhythmic  tock-tock sounded briefly the hillside: Red-necked Nightjar. By a clear week, it was the earliest I have ever recorded here.

Nightingale (Martin Kelsey)

On the second occasion, the nightjar did not call, but as I sat just before one in the morning, a Moorhen called from just above me, twice, as it flew over. And then, across to the south, from the very direction that I had been watching the Common Cuckoo during the day, came the curious long-drawn-out nocturnal calls of Great Spotted Cuckoo. Nocturnal listening by birders in the region has revealed that the species appears to do a territorial flight in the middle of the night, producing a call that is simply never heard diurnally. Another lockdown discovery.


Jeremy Dagley said…
Brilliant- truly fascinating about the Gt Spotted Cuckoo calls. The moorhen commuting at night is another intersting one too.......great to read your blogs, Martin
The information that people are gathering about nocturnal flight calls is amazing. Two people have recorded Baillon's Crakes calling overhead in the middle of the night, and a Purple Swamphen. Waders are being recorded a lot, but perhaps that is quite expected. Best wishes, Martin

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