2020 has been a fabulous year for European Cuckoo in Milton Keynes and Bucks. At the time of writing, the number of calling cuckoos in our county is well over one hundred, and no doubt other records will come to light. Quite why the cuckoo has had such a successful year, set against many years of decline, is as yet unknown.
Local bird ringer and friend of MKNHS, Kenny Cramer, was aware that there were a number of male birds calling at Linford Lakes Nature Reserve this year and was determined to try and get some of them ringed. Even he could not have anticipated how successful he would be! What follows is Kenny’s own entertaining account of trapping and ringing cuckoos in early June:
“After successfully catching and ringing two new cuckoos in mid-May (our first since 2017), we decided to try our luck with a few sessions specifically aimed at cuckoos.
On Monday evening, a single 60′ net was set in the same position on the bund which had proved successful in the past. For this I chose to use a 45mm gauge net to reduce the chances of these larger birds bouncing out as they frequently do with standard 16mm nets used for catching small passerines. With Colin the decoy (a stuffed cuckoo!) in position, I retreated to the edge of the bund where I set up camp. I was joined by Martin Kincaid on this occasion (at an appropriate social distance of course..) and it wasn’t long before we were being treated to incredible sights and sounds of as many as four cuckoos singing and occasionally squabbling in the tree tops above us.
The first net round produced nothing but the frustratingly familiar sight of a cuckoo perched on top of one of the net poles and another flying overhead. We waited patiently for another few minutes, enjoying the strange grunting and chuckling sounds the male cuckoos make between songs. I spotted one bird flying low towards the net and went to investigate. This time we were successful and our third cuckoo of 2020 was in the bag! Despite at least 3 other birds being present, the only other captures were two blackbirds and eventually we decided we had had enough mozzie bites for one evening and furled the net.
I returned early Tuesday morning and quickly had the net open. There seemed to be less activity in general but it wasn’t too long before another new cuckoo was being ringed. This was followed by a re-trap of the first cuckoo we had ringed back in May.
I packed up the net and headed back to the car with various schemes and plans drifting in my head. I decided that it was time to dust off “the beast” (this is a rig consisting of 8m poles with nets being raised/lowered on a system of pulleys) and enlisted Sarah’s help to get it set up on Tuesday evening. I chose a position on the boundary path near which had been successful in the past and this time used two nets facing each other with Colin in the middle, one net on standard poles, and one net raised up on the beast. Once everything was set, we switched on the magical mix of cuckoo noises and hid by the car.
We hadn’t heard much cuckoo song while setting up, so I was utterly gobsmacked to return to the nets to find not one but *three* cuckoos in the nets (2 in the standard net, and 1 in the beast). I got them safely extracted and into bags while still in somewhat of a state of shock and disbelief. One of the birds turned out to be a re-trap of the same bird we had caught in May, and another posed an interesting aging challenge.
This bird had retained one of its juvenile chestnut barred primary coverts on each wing (see attached pics.) This would normally suggest it was a second year bird (or a 5 in ringing terminology), however within the wing there were multiple generations of adult type feathers and the iris was a striking bright yellow rather than a dull yellow, so in the end we aged it as a 6 (meaning a bird hatched 2 or more years ago.) Thinking that there was no way we could top that, we closed the nets and I returned on Wednesday morning for a final flourish.
The final flourish turned out to be more of a damp squib with intermittent showers forcing me to stop catching for a time. One cuckoo did hit the net but didn’t stick (this first time I have seen one get out of the 45mm netting.)
So while it might seem like a lot of effort to go to for a relatively small number of birds, the privilege of getting to see these beautiful and secretive birds up close more than made up for it. I also learned a lot, proved that 2017 was not a fluke, and made the possibility of looking into starting a tracking project a more realistic proposition.”
Since writing this Kenny has caught and ringed a further three cuckoos bringing the total for this year to nine!
Martin Kincaid and Kenny Cramer