The Cuckoo Returns: pictures and video of the local Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)

On a cloudy night the lights of London reflect an orange glow over the local village and the faint rumble of the M25 can be heard. But even within such close proximity to London the surrounding fields can feel wild. Perhaps the quintessential sound of the British Spring and Early Summer is that of the Cuckoo. Hearing it suggests to me that the local fields are still ‘countryside’.

Anthropomorphic alert – here is an amazing bird that flies in from central Africa specifically to commit a wildlife crime. It steals the parenting duties from a pair of smaller birds by adding it’s egg to their clutch and then it’s gone. And it does this year after year within 20 minutes of the village. It’s always around the same spot, around the same time of year … so surely it should be easy to get a good picture.

History so far has proved otherwise. Below is an assortment of pictures and video snippets. Different cameras and lenses, some from dawn stakeouts and others from lucky grab shots. I find the Cuckoo quite a tough bird to get a great picture of but I’m going to keep trying !

Cuckoo in flight. May 31st, 2008. A lucky grab shot with the Nikon D300 and 80-400.

A lucky grab shot from Eynsford village. The Cuckoo was seen calling from telephone wires by the river. As it took off I shot a few pictures with no regard for any settings. The modern camera proved to be relatively idiot proof and did all the work for me !

Cuckoo in the orchard. May 2nd, 2009. Nikon D300 and 80-400.

Missed opportunities in 2009. Further along the valley in the old Orchard. This Cuckoo was a total surprise and stayed with its back to the camera for some moments. No great shot there. The Cuckoo (or the female) was later seen at greater distance on a fence. No great shot there.

Cuckoo in the orchard. May 2nd, 2009. D300 and 80-400.
dawn rises for a stakeout
Dawn by the dead tree. A Cuckoo stake out, April 22nd, 2011.

In 2010 no Cuckoo was heard and I wondered if it would ever return. So when the Cuckoo showed up very early in 2011 I decided it was time to get a bit more serious. For several weekends I got up at dawn and staked out a dead tree that the Cuckoo was calling from.

selfie 2011
Dawn stakeout for the Cuckoo in 2011 … hmm this fancy dress was not so useful !

Despite looking like a scarecrow and sitting in a thicket the Cuckoo had my measure in 2011.

Cuckoo on the dead tree, April 25th, 2011. Nikon D3s and Sigma 500.
Cuckoo, April 30th, 2011. Nikon D3s and Sigma 500.
Despite the stakeouts the picture didn’t really work out. One morning the Cuckoo was a no show, one morning I wasn’t really prepared and the Cuckoo sensed my presence and flew off. I added some camouflage elements and sort of got the picture I was aiming for, but the picture turned out to be a bit average. 500mm on a full frame sensor was not long enough ! The experience did sow the seed for future wildlife stakeouts and hone a few skills. Fact: A camouflage hide works out much better than dressing up in a camouflage suit.
Cuckoo in flight at the Orchard. May 13th, 2012. Nikon D3s and 300 with tc2.

A single fly by in the Orchard. 2012 was really rainy and the Cuckoo arrived but never seemed to call. Without calling I never got to locate it aside from this single sighting.

Cuckoo, May 23rd, 2014. Nikon D800E with 300 and tc2.

In 2013 the Cuckoo was heard very infrequently and I didn’t get a single picture. So in 2014 it was time to get more motivated again which yielded some picture improvements. The favoured perch was on private land but on a couple of occasions it ventured elsewhere. There was no consistent location so I didn’t feel confident enough to get up really early for a stakeout.

Cuckoo, May 23rd, 2014. Nikon V3 and FT1, 300 with tc2.

This picture was taken at truly astonishing range. It’s a novelty to be able to take such a picture but I’ve yet to take a wildlife picture I would want to print out with this setup…

Cuckoo in the orchard. May 24th, 2014. Nikon V3 with FT1, 300 with tc2.

… until about an hour later when I took this picture ! Although the pose is a bit awkward I’m quite pleased with this photo. A female (i think) Cuckoo in the Orchard. A few seconds later the male arrived while I was shooting video. The first time I’d seen two Cuckoos together which was a thrill.

Cuckoo on the dead tree. May 24th, 2014. Nikon D800E with 300 and tc2.

This was in-between heavy rain showers. I was really glad to have stayed out despite being rather damp !

Cuckoo, May 25th, 2014. Nikon D800E with 300 and tc2.
Cuckoo. June 1st, 2014. Nikon D800E with 300 and tc2.
Male and female Cuckoo. June 1st, 2014. Nikon D800E with 300 and tc2.

And a compilation of video clips.

The Cuckoo Returns. Cuculus canorus. from david armitage on Vimeo.

Sadly this sound and sight of the countryside is becoming rarer. The RSPB lists the Cuckoo as a ‘Red’ species and it faces many challenges both in the UK and in its Winter homes. Fortunately there’s some amazing research into the Cuckoo from the British Trust for Ornithology here.

Hopefully there will be many more opportunities in the future to take pictures of this beautiful bird.

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