Thursday looked like the best day of the week for an evening walk, and I had planned to take the chance to walk the circuit at Plain Farm. However on checking the Hampshire Go Birding site, I decided to change that plan, and headed off towards Old Down and then up over Andrew lane.
As I walked down Lymington Rise I could hear the alarm calls of a Robin and Blue Tit. Mindful of the Robin last Saturday I scanned the sky. After a couple of false alarms involving a Jackdaw and Wood Pigeon, I finally found a Sparrowhawk, and I wasn't the only one, two Jackdaws were also in hot pursuit, and dive bombed the hawk until it flew off and out of sight.
I headed up Brislands, the sun was quite warm, and there were birds singing on both sides. Blackcaps are now quite abundant, and their lovely song could be heard above all the others. The Firecrest was singing at the usual site, and I managed a brief view of the male in amongst the rhododendrons. A Great Spotted Woodpecker called from the Ash trees above us, and checking the hole I discovered last week seems to be a little lafger.
After missing a photograph of the Whitethroat on Saturday I was keen to find one today, I had considered walking back down Lye Way, a good spot for them, but as I approached Old Down I heard the familiar scratchy song from the hedge. I stopped, and it stopped, then I heard it a little way off. I waited, and soon it came closer and I watched it fly across in front of me, and then it appeared on the edge of the hedge singing.
In some areas they are known as the "Nettle Creeper" due to the way it stays tucked in amongst the foliage and hedgerows. It is a slender, clean -lined bird with a grey head and distinctive white throat. You can see in these photographs how well it can merge into its habitat, and the only way you know it is there is when you hear its scratchy little warble or you catch a glimpse of movement, or if you are lucky you see it burst into the air in full song, only to drop again out of sight.
I walked along the outside of Old Down in the hope of finding some butterflies. An Orange Tip flew past me, and I disturbed my first Red Admiral of the year from the soil, neither gave me a chance of a photograph.
Into the wood, and the sun went behind a cloud. The colour blue is a lovely colour, but seems to come into it's own under overcast skies. I remember being told the best time to observe the ice of a glacier is when the sky is overcast, and it is the same with the bluebells. The last few visits there has been plenty of sun, but today with the sun momentarily behind a cloud the colour burst out in front of me.
This tree provided a lovely centre piece for this panoramic view.
In amongst the blue you can see the odd white flowers, these are probably due to an ingress of the Spanish variety of Bluebell introduced through horticultural events. The Spanish variety is more prone to white albino forms. English Bluebells do exhibit a white form but they are extremely rare. Apparently every species of Bluebell will produce white flowered forms lacking the purplish pigment, the colouration being under genetic control. These forms are very uncommon in truly wild populations, they have often been collected and turn up in gardens. This means that our Bluebell wood at some stage has been invaded, probably through wind borne pollen, and the cultivated specimens have managed to mix in with the wild forms.
Again the woods were full of bird song and activity, and I flushed some Blackbirds, and then a Song thrush, which was quickly followed by a couple of tail less birds that turned out to be fledgling Song Thrushes.
Where the trees have blown down and blocked the original paths new paths have been created by the many walkers that go through here. As I walked one new path I realised that it was going very close to where there have been Early Purple Orchids over the last few years. I stopped and checked and found them about half a metre from the new path, but luckily untouched.
There were in fact two present, and they contrasted well with the surrounding Bluebells.
This year it seems the flowers have just raced out. The Celandines and anemones are now past there best and have been replaced by the Bluebells. You can still see Wood Sorrel, but now the Lords and Ladies are getting bigger, the Solomon's Seal are just starting to flower, and with the recent rain the smell of Wild Garlic fills the woods from the Ransome's that too are just beginning to flower.
I came out of the wood and headed down through the Desmond Paddocks. The sheep and lambs have moved to the top field, and the lambs a little older were a lot more active. Number 16 here was clearly in the mood to play, running around hopping and skipping about and generally annoying all the others.
As I watched and photographed the lambs I was concious of a sound I haven't heard here for a long time. Away over by Old down House I could hear a Cuckoo calling. I haven't heard one for at least 5 years here, maybe more as I was not keeping records then, and when I heard them previously it would be from the garden a way off in the distance.
This was the reason I had changed the walk plans, a Cuckoo had been reported in Ropley during the afternoon and I was hoping it may move through the patch,and the hunch was spot on. It was there but could I now find it to see it, something I have never been able to do here. I debated going up Swellinghill, to try and find it, but changed my mind and decided to stick to the plan of Andrew Lane.
As I walked up the lane I could hear it calling, and it seemed to be moving in parallel with me, maybe we would meet at the top?
The Swallows were flying around the stables, and I checked the paddocks as usual. Today though only a group of five Magpies, one then flew off.
Next stop was the Larches, the cuckoo was still calling. A couple of Great Tits here, but above me I heard the chuckle of what could only be a Fieldfare. I waited to see if it called again, and it did and flew from the tree above me across the field to the next big tree.
It was a fair way off, but you can see it is a Fieldfare, and my latest by a long way. Again they seem to congregate in this area as they make their way back to their breeding grounds.
I walked around the top of the path and headed back down the footpath towards Swellinghill. The cuckoo had been quiet for awhile, but as I came out from under the trees I heard it again, this time though a long way off, it had headed towards Lye Way. I had taken the wrong path.
As I walked on I could hear Blackbirds scolding something in the Oak trees, a little closer and they burst from the tree chasing a Sparrowhawk. It looked like the hawk had something but I couldn't be sure. As I walked on the hawk broke cover again, and flew up into the large oak in front of me. This time its talons were empty. I inched forward trying to get a good view, but this was all i could get before it flew off again.
Resigned to the fact that the Cuckoo had gone and I would have to make do yet again with just hearing it I walked to the pond. As I approached I was confronted with the sight of not one, but two different water birds on the patch. A Moorhen feeding quite happily for once in the open.
And two drake Mallards, not sure what they have done with the duck.
Blackcap and Chiffchaff sang from the surrounding trees and a little further down the lane I came across a singing Song Thrush, and for once it was quite happy to let me take its picture as it sat in the tree declaring its presence.
As I was debating in my mind whether to cross the field back to Old Down Wood I heard the Cuckoo again, but this time it was close. It was coming from the line of trees along the Bridleway. There are also wires there so maybe it was sitting on these? I stopped at the opening in the hedge and scanned across the field. I could hear it, but couldn't see it. More than likely it was in the middle of the large oaks, hidden by the emerging leaves.
I ran to the bridleway, and walked along it, stopping when the Cuckoo called. As I walked I disturbed plenty of Wood Pigeon, but the Cuckoo was still there. By the volume of the call I knew I was close when suddenly I saw movement in the large oak ahead of me, and out of the branches came the Cuckoo, flying straight at me. I lifted the camera and fired.
not the best, but unmistakeably a Cuckoo. It flew over my head and then away sticking close to the tree line, and calling. I turned back in the hope I could relocate it as it was still calling. As I reached the end of the bridleway I could see a distant shape in a tree on the other side of the field. It was the Cuckoo.
I walked along Lye Way to get a better view, and this is a cropped view.
If you look to about 7 o'clock in the picture you can see a small bird. There were in fact two, and they were repeatedly mobbing the Cuckoo as it sat calling. I am not sure what they were.
After a while the cuckoo decided to move to the next tree, and I caught it as it flew across the gap.
It was there I decided to leave it still calling. This was a bird I have wanted to find and see on the patch above many others. The fact that they have become so rare here is probably due to the lack of the normal birds they use to nest with. We do not have a large Willow Warbler population, and the Meadow Pipits only seem to be present in the winter, although I am sure they are about, but again in low numbers. The Cuckoo has a legendary status in British folklore, letters being written to the Times on first hearing the call, but in many places today the Cuckoo is never if seldom heard, and the traditional sound so much associated with the coming of spring and summer goes unheard.
The swallows continued to fly around me as I left, as if to say don't forget me, so I photographed one on a wire.
I then turned for home, and when I reached the turn for Kitwood I heard the Cuckoo again, but close. I looked back and there it was sitting in the same spot I had just photographed the swallow on. I crept closer once again, and managed to get probably the best photograph of the lot, but it isn't fantastic, but it does record the event, my first Cuckoo here.
I walked down the lane and stopped when I thought I heard a Garden Warbler singing. However it turned out to be a male Blackcap. Garden Warblers will be about, and once I hear it I will know it is one, but there will probably be a few more of these mistakes. The Blackcap made sure I could see it to confirm my error.
A little further on, and two brown blobs in the field got my pulse racing again, they couldn't be Dotterel could they, but no they weren't they were just a brace of Red-legged Partridges.
I headed past the school on my way back home pleased once again with an evening walk. Why Cuckoos have declined is a mystery, it may be due to problems in the wintering grounds, it may also be due to the drop in the numbers of caterpillars the young need to feed on, and as with other late migrants such as the Turtle Dove or Spotted Flycatcher, a shift forward in spring may be putting the birds "out of sync" with their food supply. The BTO has a current project where a selection of Cuckoos are tracked as they migrate back to Africa, this is increasing our understanding of what these birds face as they leave the UK, but fixing these problems remains a huge, if nye on impossible task.
As a youngster I remember hearing Cuckoos all the time, so much a part of my walks across South Oxford. As I walked past Four Marks School I doubted if any of the pupils there had even heard a Cuckoo let alone seen one. The cuckoos place as the quintessential sign of the coming of spring is at risk, even I have referred to other species being the sign for me. All we will be left with soon will be a set of old rural stories and sayings growing less and less relevant every year.