The cuckoo is a merry bird,
She singeth as she flies,
Well no, – actually the old song has it wrong. It’s the male bird that gives that thrilling “cuckoo”, while the female will sometimes utter a long bubbling call, though she is generally silent as she goes about her stealthy work. The good news is that the cuckoos have arrived, and like most migrants this year, they’ve come early. Our first report is of one on 17th April from near Coldstone Beck on Burley Moor. The call was heard a few days later from the west end of Ilkley Moor – earlier than the usual St. George’s Day date. Time was, that you could hear cuckoos all over the Moor at this time of year; now we are grateful to know that at least two have made it. The problem of their decline is a complex one and seems to be more to do with their migration route than with conditions here. Strangely, they are still plentiful in Scotland.
It is a time to listen – though a walk on the moors is about more than hearing just the cuckoo. Last weekend I was delighted to see several meadow pipits skimming the heather with their undulating flight or fluttering upwards and parachuting down with twittering song. This rather drab little bird that returns to our uplands for the summer is the main host for our local cuckoos so an abundance of pipits is good news for them.
But my main delight in these spring walks is to catch the arrival of those long-distance migrants, the willow warblers. Weighing in at 6-8 g. this tiny migrant has flown all the way from West Africa over the Sahara, across Europe and over the Channel to arrive punctually on Ilkley Moor, choose a nest site and burst into song – a cascade of sweet notes trickling softly away into silence. Every fifty yards or so along the upper fringe of Hebers Ghyll and, it seemed, on every rowan tree dotted across the moor, there is a singer; they cover the whole area with a web of silvery sound. Listening, you suddenly share the willow warbler’s aural landscape – a mosaic of interlocking territories. It doesn’t ask much – just a song post and a small patch of tussocky grass, heather and rock in which to site its domed nest with the feather lining, lay its eggs and raise a family. And good luck to it, I say!