Tag Archives: parasite

Serendipity II – The charismatic cuckoo

I don’t recall having seen a cuckoo before, even though I’ve heard their unique call many times. But on my sojourn over to Wicken Fen a couple of weeks ago there were lots of them. ‘Lots‘ is a relative term because cuckoos are becoming increasingly scarce, their conservation status is red due to recent declines in the breeding population and in 2000 there were 9.6-19000 breeding pairs in the UK. But on this trip we heard and saw at least 5 and possibly several  more.

Just before I spotted the first cuckoo I glanced across the lake and this was the view:


A pair of shoveler in the foreground, a little egret behind and a roe deer just beyond the reeds

I really like this picture because of the colours of the reeds and the water in the evening sunshine, but also because it contains three interesting species. Apart from rabbits, any wild mammal is exciting to see in this country, so the roe deer was a pleasing encounter. The little egret (Egretta garzetta, Dansk: silkehejre) is a member of the heron family which is now resident in the UK, presumably as a result of climate change. I associate them with warmer places because that’s where I saw them before 2000, but nowadays they’re not particularly uncommon here. And in the forefround are two shoveler (Anas clypeata, Dansk: skeand) which are migrant visitors to the UK, but this pair obviously liked it enough to linger and are still here in the middle of May, long after they would normally have left.

And then there were the cuckoos:


A pair of cuckoo, Cuculus canorus, Dansk: gøg

The cuckoo is an incredible bird and until very recently it was poorly understood. Last year the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) managed to tag five male cuckoos with tiny satellite tracking devices and found out that they headed to the tropical sub-Saharan rainforests of Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The cuckoo arrives back in England from Africa in late March or April and departs in July or August. It leaves earlier than other species because its parasitic breeding strategy removes the need for chick rearing. That means the cuckoo spends a minimum of 8 months a year in Africa so to call it a British bird is, I suppose, less than accurate, even though it breeds here.


The classic hanging wings pose which I always associate with the cuckoo

The tagged birds were all fitted with solar powered devices which transmit location data once every 48hr. The tracking data revealed that all five birds headed south over France and across the Mediterranean before heading down across Africa to Cameroon and DRC. All five made it. One of the birds died in Cameroon and two more died on the way back, but two of the five made it back to East Anglia this year. I believe the BTO plan to tag more birds including females and I’m very keen to see the results of that experiment.

The cuckoo is an iconic bird in the UK and it’s call is very distinctive. The call is generally recognised as a signal that Spring has arrived and there are local traditions around the UK based on the cuckoo. It is said in Worcestershire that the cuckoo is never heard before Tenbury Fair on April 21st or after Pershore Fair on June 26th. The song actually changes in June from the characteristic ‘cuck-coo‘ song to a shortened ‘cuck‘, and there is a rhyme about this:

In April I open my bill
In May I sing night and day
In June I change my tune
In July far far I fly
In August away I must

My Dad remembers a similar rhyme he used to sing when he was a kid in the 1940’s which was essentially the same but with some local Northamptonshire words substituted in.

I’m not quite sure what these two were doing but they were acting as a pair, and every minute or two one of them would dive off into the adjacent reedbeds to return a minute or so later. As I mentioned above, cuckoos are parasites and they could have been looking for nests to parasitise. There breeding strategy is unique, at least as far as I know. They lay their eggs in the nests of one of three other small songbird species: the reed warbler, the meadow pippit and the dunnock. All of these are the size of a sparrow (ish) so are much smaller than the cuckoo which is dove-sized, which I guess guarantees that the cuckoo chick will be much bigger than its ‘siblings’ and it won’t be threatened. The cuckoo chick then ejects the other chicks from the nest to die and the parents assume it is one of their own and feed it until it fledges. I’ve seen film of a cuckoo chick turfing out the other chicks and it’s a remarkable process, and not particularly pleasant to watch!

Despite their unsavoury procreation habits they are spectacular and charismatic birds and I hope the BTO research can find ways to guarantee their continued return here to brighten up the Spring and Summer.

Forests and fungi

Norsey Wood is a small oasis of ancient woodland situated on the edge of Billericay in Essex.


Beech and birch of Norsey Wood in Autumnal sunshine

It’s a lovely fragment of forest left over from the days when the kings of England had hunting grounds where they would hunt wild boar and red deer, and it consists predominantly of oak, beech and birch. It was devastated by the hurricane in 1987 and many of the trees are still leaning at some rather unnatural angles.

Hurricane damage

I attended a nature photography day at the Wetland and Wildlife Trust at Welney in Norfolk a couple of weeks ago where four top flight professional photographers talked about their work. I was inspired by all of them, but one in particular, a guy called David Ward, made me really think about how I take pictures. He called it ‘making‘ rather than ‘taking‘ a picture, which turned everything on it’s head for me. Previously I’d viewed photography in a rather scientific way as a means of creating a record of an exisitng phenomenon, but the concept of ‘making‘ a picture by focussing down on a small part of a subject to create something more abstract and thought provoking was a  notion which I really like. And there’s nothing like an ancient English wood in the autumn sunshine to suffuse me with paroxysms of artistic fervour!

So I tried to use a similar thought process when I was taking these photographs of the woods. I gave rather more thought to the composition, and as it was quite dark under the tree canopy with intermittent bright sunlight above it, the conditions were tricky. Technically I could have done better, but experimenting with new  thought processes was alot of fun and I hope you like the results!

Layers of light

In the ‘hurricane damage’ picture I wanted to capture the angles of the trees that were blown over against the uprights of the undamaged trees, and in the ‘layers’ picture it was the sunlight on the four layers of yellow leaves against the mysterious darkness deep in the wood that captivated me. I think these images are OK and hopefully they convey a little of the atmosphere amongst the trees. If you agree – or indeed if you don’t – or you have  any other thoughts please post a comment and let me know.

If you’re still reading, thankyou for indulging me through my artistic interlude, but now I’ll return to the more familiar and prosaic territory of documenting my wildlife encounters. Going back alot of years to when I was sixteen and had just acquired my first SLR I took alot of ribbing about my fascination for fungi. But I still think they make great pictures and inbetween trying to shoot the trees of Norsey Wood I was capturing some of the amazing variety of fungi growing on and amongst the trees.

The floor of the wood was covered in a deep layer of multicoloured leaves which changed as the sun waxed and waned and poking through were tree stumps and dead branches plastered with bracket fungi,

I think this bracket is an ‘oak curtain crust’ (Hymenochaete rubiginosa)
And this resupinate is the toothed crust fungus (Basidioradulum radula)

The oak curtain crust grows on other trees than oak, in this instance a silver birch stump and the toothed crust is growing on a dead birch branch. Fungi are biochemically fascinating and they specialise in extracting nutrients from wherever they grow, in this case dead wood, but it could also be live wood or even live humans, as either parasites such as athletes foot, or saprophytes which extract nutrients without harming the host, or in a symbiotic relationship where the association with another live organism is mutually beneficial.

The most recognisable fungus which adorns many a Christmas card and childs drawing is the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria). So called because in days of yore in central Europe it was mixed with milk and used as an insecticide to kill flies. The specific name ‘muscaria‘ is derived from ‘musca‘ which is Latin for fly.


The bright red cap of the fly agaric. The gill structure, the ring on the stem and the white flecks on the cap are also diagnostic, but the flecks can be washed off by heavy rain

The fly agaric is generally considered to be poisonous due to a compound called muscimol, which also has psychoactive properties. Because of this, myths and legends have been ascribed to this mushroom including the use by the Vikings to induce the berserker rages in which they went into battle. Apparently, parboiling it deactivates the toxins and renders it edible, but I reckon if I served it up to my wife she’d suspect nefarious intant!


A group of fly agarics of various ages and sizes, and all of them have been nibbled by other inhabitants of the wood