May 18th   Leave a comment

I was on the edge of the golf course, overlooking Balcomie Beach at about 6 this morning when I heard a cuckoo calling. Collared doves might sound a bit like a cuckoo, but when you hear the real thing you know it straight away. I think everyone can recognise a cuckoo even if they have not heard one before – if in doubt it is not a cuckoo. It is a lovely and very evocative call. I grew up visiting a tiny reedbed close to my house every weekend. One of the joys of Fowlmere was the cuckoos every spring, and I used to hear them every visit through May and early June. Later in my life I used to hear them in the Highlands and the West Coast, and recently they were the backdrop to my fieldwork in the mountains of Cyprus. But the East Neuk is sadly cuckoo free except for passage birds and these don’t often call in spring and never in early July – the month when there is the best chance of seeing one, at Kilminning. It has now been a few years since I heard a Crail cuckoo. They have all been very early morning birds – worth getting up for, and it made my day today.

I glanced out of the window into my back garden mid-morning. There was a male sparrowhawk in the middle of the lawn eating a house sparrow. I have been watching the sparrows getting more and more reckless as the spring goes on, squabbling, bathing in my pond, and sitting on the wall cheeping away. Today there was a reckoning and they will all be much shyer for a while. We find a sparrow kill about once every few of months in the garden on average but most are newly fledged birds in June and July. A sparrowhawk will be eating a bird at least the size of a sparrow every day, and if it has a nest of five chicks it will be catching another five for them. It’s a lot of small birds. But sparrowhawks don’t limit small bird populations, rather the reverse. When sparrowhawks disappeared from many areas of the UK because of pesticide poisoning in the 1950s, songbird populations didn’t change at all. Although I saw cuckoos as a boy at Fowlmere, I never saw a sparrowhawk – they were absent from much of Eastern England up until the 1990s. They have come back as we sorted out the environmental problem that had killed them. And now the cuckoos have gone – 50 years ago they will have even been cuckooing in the East Neuk. But surely they can return too if we just pay attention to whatever we have changed.

The male sparrowhawk in my garden this morning getting his one a day. A little blurry through a window but sparrowhawks are as alert as anything and even the tiniest bit of movement to open a window will (and did) send it on its way.

Posted May 18, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

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