A few days ago I spotted a chick by the river which I thought was a kestrel and it was actually a sparrowhawk. Yesterday I spotted a chick which I assumed to be the sparrowhawk but which turned out to be a cuckoo!
The chick was out on the dead tree near the weir. It’s a popular perch for all sorts of birds. This one had its back to me and had very pronounced feathers. I decided it was a sparrowhawk, mainly because I’d seen one at the nest near Snipe Meadow and couldn’t think what else it could be. It was making a constant but rather pretty “shweeshweeshwee…” which sounded a bit like a very distant and inoffensive car alarm. That seemed odd as it was nothing like the sparrowhawk calls I’d been hearing. A small bird would occasionally perch near it and I also thought it odd that they weren’t afraid. I still thought it was a hawk when I later sent a photo to Barney Dillarstone.
He told me it was a cuckoo chick. That was amazing, because its not often that you get to see one. Now it became obvious why small birds were visiting and perching close by. It was still being looked after by a reed warbler several times smaller than itself. There seemed to be a tension between the cuckoo perching at head height, relatively out in the open, and the parent warbler which would naturally inhabit reed beds and and places low to the water. Adult female cuckoos seem comfortable close to the ground and in reeds or undergrowth – at least that’s where I’ve heard their trilling call. But males spend a lot of time in the topmost branches, the best and highest pulpit for their cuckoo call.
The chick would occasionally flit between different perches. Feeding mostly happened in the reeds or bushes and was lightning quick. You could tell when the adult bird came near as the chick’s call became louder and faster. The warbler, its beak full of insects, would pause close to the giant chick and then lunge in and out of its mouth as if scared it might get swallowed whole. The inside of the chick’s mouth was a startling crimson colour, and as it crouched forward to be fed its thick, dark body and neck resembled a walrus. Quite a contrast to the light colour and nippy movements of its adoptive (and presumably exhausted) parent.
It flew further into the reeds by the weir and I could hear it but no longer see it. I set off back home but got sidetracked by loud kingfisher calls near Snipe Meadow. One flew out of the low willow branches on the near bank and settled a couple of times as I followed it back down river. Again, it perched on the dead tree just long enough for me to catch up and identify it as an adult male before flying off past the weir. Then it became obvious why the calls were so loud, as another kingfisher took off from further down the bank and was pursued. It was a surprise to see two together. The relationship didn’t seem combative. I wonder if it was a pair, possibly starting a third brood of chicks? If so, they won’t emerge from the nest till late September, which seems rather late.