A Goodie the Sad and the Cuddly

Did you know that adult cuckoos only spend about 6 weeks with us here in the UK every year? Nope neither did I, but thanks to the remarkable work of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) who have attached satellite tags to a few of these charismatic summer visitors (including Chris the cuckoo made famous by BBCs Springwatch) we now know this to be an indisputable fact. Cuckoos folks, and brace yourselves for the bad news, are not really British birds. They are an African bird that chooses to spend a short spell in our green and pleasant land for the sole purposes of mating and depositing their eggs in the nests of host species such as reed warbler, meadow pipit and dunnock (females can lay over 20 eggs in a season). This and many other interesting snippets could be gleaned from an engaging talk delivered by Ieuan Evans at the Norfolk Bird Fair which took place at Mannington Hall over the weekend.

A Goodie

This is the second year the event has taken place in this most wonderful of rural settings and many exhibitors were present whose specialisms ranged from raptor rehabilitation to carving sculptures of wooden owls with a chainsaw. For a nominal fee you could even have a beautiful 10 foot long boa constrictor draped around your shoulders. However the star attraction this year was that loveable, cuddly, comedic icon that is Bill Oddie who gave an entertaining talk on his earlier life and what led him to become the naturalist and wildlife champion we all know and love today. He was in a jolly mood cracking jokes, posing for pictures etc and you would think that with such a big name in attendance the place would be swarming with people, but sadly that was not the case. There were sufficient folk around to fill the small lecture hall, but to be honest the rest of the site was generally pretty empty. That is a real shame because an awful lot of hard work goes into organising events such as these and it is all for such a good cause. However, one (amongst many) very valuable thing I learnt during my time working for Norfolk Wildlife Trust was that you have to promote like hell to ensure your events occupy the public consciousness (thanks Gemma). Perhaps this event simply wasnt promoted well enough.

Mr Oddie in Full Flow

Post Lecture Relaxation

Wood Carving on a Grand Scale

The Sad

Anyway lets get back to those cuckoos.  I was captivated by the way in which science has been applied to shed light on the mystery of how, where and when cuckoos migrate between their homeland of Africa and Northern Europe. Prior to satellite technology being employed there was only a single recovery record of a UK ringed cuckoo from Africa (Cameroon) dating back to 1930. In the last few years our knowledge has taken a quantum leap providing invaluable data of precisely how cuckoos spend their time throughout the year. What I found particularly interesting is that: 1) Cuckoos do not actually 'winter' in Cameroon, rather they spend their time in staged migration through Europe, before moving into Africa to reside in the regions around the Congo; 2) the Norfolk tagged birds seem to take a very arduous migration route around the western coast of Africa, resulting in flight distances nearly twice as far as other populations that elect to travel directly south across the Mediterranean and the Sahara. Data indicates a mortality rate of nearly 50% for individuals choosing this longer migration route as opposed to only 10% for the direct flight path; and 3) On their northwards migration the birds choosing the longer route (the Norfolk birds) are forced to linger in Western Africa awaiting the rains to produce plants/insects to sustain them for the long flight across the desert regions. These rains are not influenced by local climatic conditions but by higher level atmospherics (I wouldn't pretend to begin to understand the detail). The result is akin to the cuckoos being caught in the slow moving post office queue whilst all around others are being processed much quicker. In other words the migration of other birds is being conditioned by our changing climate, but the cuckoo has to wait for other higher level factors to kick in before its needs are satisfied. So, whereas many other summer migrants are arriving in the UK up to three weeks earlier than they were a few decades ago, cuckoos are not and are therefore behind the curve. What does this matter? Well it means cuckoos are unable to up their game and may be arriving too late to properly exploit the breeding cycle of host species. Damn interesting this science. Weird isn't it though that on the one hand we have humans in the UK dedicating large amounts of money and hard labour to finding out how best to conserve the cuckoo whilst on the other we have humans in Africa, ignorant and impoverished by our standards, killing the very same birds for sport/food/profit. Is there really hope? Sometimes I despair I really do.

To round off a very interesting afternoon, Yoav Perlman, an Israeli guy now living in Norwich and working at the UEA, spoke about the conservation efforts he undertakes in his native country to mitigate the challenges faced by wildlife confronted with a rapidly increasing human population. As an idea of the rate of population growth in Israel, in 1948 when the state was formed some 600,000 people occupied the country. That figure now stands at 8,000,000 and is rising at a rate higher than that of Bangladesh. Frightening. We did see evidence of some of this at first hand a few weeks ago (road and house building, increasing agricultural settlements, water extraction etc),  but it is heartening to learn that people like Yoav care deeply about their wildlife and are working with national and local government, landowners and the population at large to inform, educate and invoke change.

The Cuddly

Ural Owl

What a Sweetie!

Little Owl

Almost Pocket Sized

Look at those big liquid eyes

Eagle Owl

Try cuddling this and your cuddling days could soon be over

Eagle Owl

All in all it was potentially a really great event with plenty to see and do to keep people, including children, occupied. Lets hope it continues for next year and that more people make the effort to attend.