Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Leaving it Late

Here on the east coast, if you miss the early spring rush of Cuckoos on migration, well you may have to wait til end of season.  So it was for me this year, but I did get lucky just in time.  The Wicklow coast can often produce a late adult or an even later juvenile bird, tempted to remain with us if the weather is warm and their favourite prey is in evidence.

The adults are most evident in late April when calling birds attract all kinds of attention, from small birds and diligent countryside watchers.  Because they get their breeding business done relatively early, that is, lay the eggs but pass on the raising fledglings bit, they are free to depart for Africa in mid-summer.

In Ireland they typically use a Meadow Pipits nest to drop their egg in and move on around their chosen territories, repeating the act and trusting the unfortunate Pipit to raise and foster the soon gigantic young Cuckoo.  By late July it is only the successful juveniles that are to be seen: Remarkably , these young birds must acquire or inherit  information that that will first guide them south into Africa and return in spring with the knowledge of what to lay and what host to seek, always ensuring their egg matches the colour of the hosts.

The diet of Cuckoos is  highly specialised, mainly composed of  Caterpillars and often the hairy or more toxic ones.  So no wonder really that a bird that depends on the fortunes of its host species and also has a specialist protein diet that is in decline, mainly due to intensification of the landscape over the last half century, struggles to show off its iconic spring status in numbers.

The bird that appeared on the railway line at Newcastle was a very dark juvenile, quite confiding as it had found a decent food supply in the unkempt meadows and dune slacks on the fringes of thetracks.  This is traditionally a very warm and dry strip, well known for basking lizards and lots of butterflies and Burnet Moths, so a temporary sort of home for a young Cuckoo, making its way south.

This wonderful set of photographs of the juvenile Cuckoo were taken by c. Shay Connolly, 

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