How to outsmart a canny cuckoo chick

The shrill call of a young cuckoo
The shrill call of a young cuckoo
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In the latest of his wildlife columns, wildlife artist Robert Fuller goes though the process of how to capture cuckoos in the wild.

The shrill call of a young cuckoo is a sound that I don’t hear that often but when I do I recognise it immediately. It has long been an ambition of mine to photograph the chick of this unusual parasitic bird, which flies all the way from Africa to lay its egg in another bird’s nest. I last had the chance 20 years ago.

As is so often the case with wildlife watching, I wasn’t even thinking about cuckoos at the time. I was looking for deer. I had spotted some fields which had been cut for hay, while on holiday in Scotland.

So I set off one evening and straightaway spotted a roe doe and its fawn walking away. I headed around a knoll of land to cut them off and sat down to wait. They didn’t appear so I went round the corner to see what was happening. But there was no sign of them. I gave up and set off in the direction of some boxing hares on the other side of the field. Only then did the deer break cover – they had been lying in some grass just metres from where I was standing. So that was the end of that.

I decided to try my luck with the hares but as I made my silent approach my attention was diverted by a young bird call. It stopped me in my tracks. It sounded like a young cuckoo. The high-pitched trill imitates the sound a whole clutch of chicks makes to get their surrogate parents to feed them as much and as quickly as possible.

My hunch was confirmed when I saw the cuckoo chick fly up from the ground and into a large Scot’s pine on the edge of the field. It was being followed frantically by two meadow pipits – its surrogate parents.

I was getting fantastic views of the meadow pipits feeding the much larger cuckoo chick but I was not close enough for a photograph. Each time as I got nearer the meadow pipits would alarm call and the cuckoo would fly on to the next tree.

I could tell the cuckoo had been out of the nest for quite a while as its tail was fully grown and it was fast and agile in flight. In the past, I’ve found newly fledged chicks to be quite clumsy and easily approached. I was going to have my work cut out with this one.

The cuckoo flew down onto the ground and caught its own caterpillar. It was a sign of its growing independence and that it would shortly be departing for Africa, completing the breeding cycle.

Its constant shrill call let both the meadow pipits and me keep track of it through the trees. I followed it for over an hour with great sightings but no photographs. I stayed with the cuckoo until it was nearly dark. It settled down for the night so I had it pinpointed for another try the following morning.

I set my alarm clock for dawn. I knew I was going to have to adopt a different approach if I was going to get close enough. So, out of my suitcase came my full camouflage suit and a large sheet of camouflage netting which I duly attached to my tripod.

After a short walk I heard the shrill call of the cuckoo not far from where I had left it the evening before. I approached the tree where I thought the sound was emanating from but fell down a hole and felt my ankle twist, my knee crack, my camera tumble to the ground and more annoyingly saw the cuckoo taking flight.

I got back on my feet, albeit with a limp, and started the stalk again. This time I got closer but it flew again just as I focused the camera. And the second time I got near it was completely obscured by branches. So I waited for it to move on to the next tree and as it flew I tracked its movement with my binoculars. I repeated this process frustratingly for an hour.

If I was in thick cover I could get closer but if it was on an open branch it was much more wary and would fly on. But I was determined to capture the moments when the meadow pipits feed their oversized chick.

I passed under some power lines stretching across the undulating moor and open forest. On the wires were dozens of meadow pipits. They had finished breeding and were gathering into large flocks – quite a contrast to the rather harassed pipits that were still ‘bringing up baby’.

The cuckoo then took a long flight hundreds of yards into a wood on the other side of the field. I was just wondering whether it was possible to take a photograph before a dog walker flushed it and it flew back over my head with the meadow pipits giving chase to try and guide it back towards the moorland. But the cuckoo would not be swayed – it landed next to the road into a copse of magnificent beech and horse chestnut trees.

I caught up with it eventually and could hear its call but the trees were too big and dense to see it. I waited for 20 minutes with no sightings of the cuckoo and only the occasional view of one of the meadow pipits.

It was 8am by now and the road adjacent to the field was starting to get busier with traffic. A lorry came down at speed and frightened the cuckoo away. It flew back across the field and back into the tree that I first saw it in that morning – three hours ago!

It landed on an open branch and with my binoculars I could see the meadow pipits feeding it every few minutes.

I approached across the field hidden behind my camouflage netting. I was finally close enough to get some good shots. I took the opportunity to get closer still when the cuckoo was distracted by being fed by one of its surrogate parents. As it continued to move through the trees I adopted this new technique and made sure I knew where it was exactly in each tree as I approached it.

Sometimes I even waited for the pipits to pinpoint it for me as they went in to feed it. Once located I used branches and other trees to disguise my approach and finally nearly four hours later I was just 12 metres away and getting frame filling photographs.