Cuckoo and Whinchat

Field Paintings

Unexpected encounters with familiar wildlife is what keeps me out in the field day after day through the seasons. There is always the chance of seeing something unusual even at sites where you have spent many days or often years observing. On 27 June I watched a young cuckoo, about a week out of the nest in some gorse during the early morning. It had hidden up here after fledging from a meadow pipit nest nearby but was difficult to see.

After a couple of hours it flew out of the gorse and settled in a small hawthorn at the base of a wide valley which extends up on to the open moor. It had found its wings and was on the move. I followed it for a hundred metres then could see a male cuckoo calling in the hawthorns ahead. The adults have usually departed by late June so it was unusual to see and adult and juvenile at the same time. Then the adult caught a large caterpillar and at that point the juvenile cuckoo flew to him and settled briefly on the same branch. Then the juvenile sat on one side of the tree begging for food whilst the male (probably its father) sat swallowing the caterpillar on the other side whilst the pipits fed the youngster – a rare sight to see.

Then the juvenile cuckoo moved on to a low hawthorn further up the gulley. A loud “vu vu vu” call sounded in the bush as a male whinchat flew in and mobbed the cuckoo. The whinchats mate was sitting on eggs a few hundred metres away. It probably knew that the adult cuckoo is an egg thief and would not tolerate any cuckoos near its nest. Then the cuckoo flew to a hawthorn a few metres from the whinchat nest. I moved quickly over so not to miss the action. The male whinchat was now furious and flew at the cuckoo landing on its head and pecking it viciously. Each time the whinchat approached the cuckoo would beg for food only to be attacked again and again by the whinchat. These dramatic attacks continued on and off for 2 hours and were amazing to watch. Eventually, at 230pm, the cuckoo moved on to settle in a large rowan at the top of the valley so it was time to head back home. It was a hot day and I had been in the field since 530am so was exhausted but delighted to have witnessed such amazing behaviour.

John Walters

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