Thursday, 26 May 2016

Totally cuckoo

Black-billed Cuckoo - a dream bird!
Read further down for more
(All cuckoo photos by kind permission of Stu Piner)
22nd May

Another big day planned in the veg garden today. First job was to finish the structure for the peas to clamber up. It's taken ages to construct but it's worth it. One of Sue's willow dragonflies tops it off nicely. I'm growing Champion of England, an old-fashioned tall pea (they've gone out of fashion as they crop over a long period and cannot be harvested mechanically. I've sowed late in the hope that the flowers avoid the emergence of the pea moth.

I've planted a Squash Uchiki Kiri to climb up with the peas. Once they've been harvested it'll add some interest and have the structure to itself.

Next I planted the Minipop Sweetcorn plants which have been raised in the polytunnel. It should be warm enough for them outside now. There'll be no trouble with them cross-pollenating the maincrop sweetcorn as these are harvested as baby corns before pollination occurs. Again I've underplanted some Butternut Squash which will provide some ground cover and occupy the ground once the corn comes out.

While I was doing this, Sue was busy harvesting. We currently have a steady supply of mangetout, asparagus, rhubarb and new potatoes, as well as coriander and strawberries.

It was nice to hear the first farm cuckoo this year too, but warblers seem scarce on the ground so I'm not sure it will find a victim. Apparently each individual cuckoo is adapted to parasitise one species.

Evening crept up quickly today and before I knew it the clock had moved on to 6pm.

It was shortly after that I received a phone call. "There's a Black-billed Cuckoo on North Uist."

Here we go again!!!!

23rd May
So last night was somewhat overtaken by arrangements to travel for the cuckoo. To catch the morning ferry from Uig (Isle of Skye, 570 miles!) I needed to leave by 9.30pm. I had booked my car and myself onto the boat for the princely sum of £36.10 but plans had already changed. A friend had arranged a small charter boat back off the island so that we didn't need to stay an extra night.

A quick word about Black-billed Cuckoo. It's one of those birds which, at the age of almost 50, I thought I may never see. It comes from America. There was one last year for all of about five minutes on one of the Orkney Isles. Before that you have to go back 24 years to one which ended a bit of a run in the 1980s when there were 6 birds, an incredible 4 turning up in 1982.
But there's more to it than that, much more. For Black-billed Cuckoo has obtained quite a reputation for dropping dead shortly after arriving in Britain. There has long been a theory, birders' urban myth or not, that the caterpillars they find to eat here are toxic to them. Anyway, whatever the cause of their demise, even back in the 1980s you had to be pretty much in the right place at the right time to catch up with a BBC. Many of the old time birders were, though, when birds turned up with some regularity on The Scillies, albeit usually on their last legs clinging to branches droopy-winged and lazy-eyed. (The cuckoos, not the old birders, though that description may fit some of them!)
Today's bird seemed healthy enough though. It was in fact the first ever spring bird on this side of the Atlantic, which meant there was a chance that this one might just not live up to its predecessors' reputation.

And so the long drive to Uig began, va Middlesbrough and Sunderland to pick up a crew of young birders who weren't even alive when the birds turned up in the 80s! Fortunately it wasn't dark for long as we headed North which made the overnight drive easier.

As we headed through the amazing scenery of The Highlands I picked up the news we'd been hoping for on the internet. The Black-billed Cuckoo was still present, alive and well, at 6.24am. I drove faster, despite the fact it would make absolutely no difference to what time the ferry left. We passed several other birders' cars on the way.

The ferry across to Lochmaddy was uneventful, a chance to grab a breakfast and catch up with an hour or so of sleep. Down the gangplank at the other end and we sought out our taxis! Time had passed and it was now getting on for midday. We knew the bird was still there late morning, but there was still the possibility that it would strike us a cruel blow, either dropping dead or healthily flying off.

The taxi to the site seemed like the slowest ever, made worse by the single-track road and a mobile home that didn't know the purpose of passing places.

As we pulled up in the tiny hamlet of Knockintorran there were already maybe 30 birders present, mostly those who'd taken the more expensive charter plane option, though we were completely out-twitched by one team who'd worked out the ferry timetable better than us and arrived a good couple of hours earlier.

Scopes and binoculars were pointing and friends quickly put us onto the bird which was perched on a fence at the back of a garden. The bird was clearly bright and active, moving between bushes and regularly catching large caterpillars. I felt joy, relief and awe all at once.

We could now relax and enjoy the bird in such a wonderful setting. The bird regularly flew between gardens but was always quickly refound, if occasionally disappearing into bushes. It didn't take too long to get great views.

And so, after a very pleasant few hours, we headed back to Lochmaddy ferry terminal. But we weren't headed for the ferry as the next one was tomorrow morning.

Instead a small boat had come over from Uig to pick us up, one usually used for puffin watching on the Shiant Islands. We quickly assigned the inside as the drivers' lounge, a place to catch another hour or so sleep. The crossing was delightfully smooth and we were reunited with our car by 6.30pm.

The long drive home began, via Kyle of Lochalsh for Fish and Chips (I thought it best not to go for battered pizza - a Scottish health speciality I assume).
I managed to get the youngsters back to their beds in the Northeast by 3am, but the 3 hours further south back to The Fens had me beat. I got a long way but finally had to pull into a services for an hour's sleep - my third power nap in two nights.
By 6.30 I was on the road back home. Quite a contrast to where I'd just come from.

Back to life in the slow lane!

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