Birdwatch: Early return of the cuckoo

Singing cuckoos can now be heard and the birds appear to be returning about a week earlier.  Pic: Michael Ashforth
Singing cuckoos can now be heard and the birds appear to be returning about a week earlier. Pic: Michael Ashforth
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SINGING CUCKOOS are starting to be heard, a sound that announces summer’s arrival.

They appear in most parts in Britain this month and traditionally begin calling on April 14, St Tiburtius Day and continue until June 24, St John’s Day. The average date on which they are first heard is April 18 in southern England while in the north it falls in the last week of the month.

In recent years cuckoos and other spring migrants, have been arriving back about a week earlier than before so the average ‘first’ dates are changing.

Reader Noel Williamson of Gilberdyke, East Yorkshire, heard his first on April 9, five days earlier than last year and there could be some even earlier examples.

A longstanding location for reports of first calling cuckoos is the letters pages of The Times but this year britishbirdlovers.co.uk asked for reports with some interesting responses.

Three were reported to be calling in February: at Neath, South Wales; Ashbury, Wiltshire; and Calverton, Nottinghamshire. There were more reports in March with one heard in the Hope Valley in the Peak District National Park, a place where cuckoos return every year, and one seen at Harpley Dams, Norfolk.

Most of these reports are likely to be the results of hoaxers playing tapes or possibly mistaken identity- collared doves can sound very like cuckoos in early spring.

But there is a reliable report of a cuckoo heard and seen at Farnham, Surrey, on February 20, 1953, so it is not totally out of the question that one or two might arrive early and remain largely silent until the main influx arrives and the competition begins to find a female.

More redstarts and pied flycatchers have been arriving with both now back in the Strid Woods at Bolton Abbey.

Sedge, reed and grasshopper warblers are becoming more widespread, a garden warbler was at Wykeham Forest, North Yorkshire this week and there’s been a continuing large passage of ring ouzels both along the coast and inland.

More sand and house martins and swallows have arrived and the first few swifts have been reported. Whitethroats and lesser whitethroats, tree pipits, whinchats and more yellow wagtails have been seen including a blue-headed wagtail from Europe at Sammy’s Point on the Humber.

Overshooting spring migrants have included a hoopoe at Hornsea Mere, a singing serin again at the Warren, Spurn that was caught and ringed, and a possible sighting of two red-rumped swallows at the Tophill Low reserve. A firecrest was seen on allotments at Norwood, Sheffield. A red-necked grebe in summer plumage was at Angler’s Country Park near Wakefield and five black-necked grebes at Pugney’s Country Park.

Some 14 wader species are at the Blacktoft Sands reserve including greenshanks, ruff, spotted redshanks and black-tailed godwits. A wood sandpiper was seen at Swillington Ings.