Following the elusive cuckoo

The song of the cuckoo has to be one of the easiest to recognise in the bird world and many of us will have heard one, although in some parts of the British Isles that is becoming harder. Since 1995, England has lost two-thirds of its cuckoos and Wales just under a third. Only in Scotland is the population increasing, up by a fifth over the same period. Whilst hearing the distinctive ‘cuckooing’ of the male bird – females don’t ‘cuckoo’ at all but utter a loud, far-carrying, liquid bubbling call instead – is becoming increasing difficult, seeing a cuckoo has always been so.

Cuckoo by Edmund Fellowes 

Image by Edmund Fellowes

Return flights to Africa

Over the last five years, we at the British Trust for Ornithology have been fitting satellite tags to cuckoos from different parts of the UK in a bid to help uncover what might be affecting their numbers. So far, birds have been tagged in East Anglia, the southeast, the southwest, the New Forest, the Midlands, Wales, the northeast, the northwest and Scotland.

From our tracking, we have discovered a new migration route into Africa that is only used by English birds – all of the Welsh and Scottish birds tagged so far have migrated through Italy and the Balkans. The Congo rainforest has been identified as the wintering area of all the birds, irrespective of their tagging location or the route taken to get there. We’ve also found that all birds migrate back to Britain via West Africa, no matter where they come from.

Where to look and listen

For anyone wanting to spot cuckoos over the summer, all of the BTO’s tagging locations are cuckoo hotspots, although some are better than others. In East Anglia, Thetford Forest and the reedbeds of the Fens and Broads are great places to search.

In the forest, the open areas of the Heath and the Brecks are the best spots to visit and, as cuckoos are early risers, an early morning walk on the heath at Brandon Country Park is a good bet – the earlier the better. It is also worth keeping an eye out for woodlark, stonechat, tree pipit and, if you are close to first light, roding woodcock. If the thought of a very early start is off-putting, cuckoos become active again in the late evening, which is an even better time to catch up with those territorial woodcock flights.

The same goes for reedbeds – early morning and late evening are best – but the supporting cast is quite different. Reed and sedge warblers dominate the soundscape and with patience can also be seen well, but also listen out for the booming of the bittern, an East Anglian speciality. Lakenheath Fen and Hickling Broad are two great places to visit.

Bittern by Jill Pakenham

Image by Jill Pakenham

More cuckoo hotspots

Across the south, the New Forest in Hampshire, Dartmoor in Devon and Ashdown Forest in Sussex are great places to catch up with cuckoos, with the added bonus of Dartford warblers on the New Forest heaths, ring ouzels on Dartmoor and woodlarks in the clearings of Ashdown Forest.

The Tregaron area of Wales still holds a fairly healthy population of cuckoos and the surrounding river valleys are also a great place to spot the trio of Welsh specialities: the wood warbler, pied flycatcher and redstart. It is also worth keeping an eye out for dippers.

Of all the places to go to see a cuckoo in Britain, Scotland has to be the best. The shores of Loch Katrine and the Isle of Skye offer amazing walks and plenty of cuckoos and, while there are more in the west of the country, they can be encountered almost anywhere. If you do head to Skye though, keep an eye out for golden and white-tailed eagles too.


Magazine of the Ramblers


Over the last month I have been fortunate to hear many cuckoos in different locations including Loch Lomond, Ayrshire, Perthshire & Morvern. Indeed in Perthshire & Morvern 3 different males at same time, there is no shortage here.

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Carl dixon

We live just north of Guildford and haven't heard the cuckoo for at least 5 years. However, it was with immense pleasure that we heard a very loud , persistent male cuckoo this year between May and June.

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