Great Spotted Cuckoo – Ventnor, Isle of Wight

Aly and I returned from the Weymouth area having seen Hoopoe and Lesser Yellowlegs and we met Dad at my house and then travelled together in my car to the ferry terminal.  Our target was the Great Spotted Cuckoo on the Isle of Wight near Ventnor. The ferry took an hour and we arrived at Wheeler’s Bay Car Park at around 1:30 pm. We walked down the footpath which led down to sea level and then around the promenade heading east. We met another birder who was watching the Great Spotted Cuckoo and we had our first views. 

The cuckoo had been on the cliff here for over a week and so clearly liked the area. It hopped around the vegetation on the steep slopes with its extremely long tail often held up at an angle, and it regularly made short flights, often settling in small trees. While on the ground it gorged on caterpillars.

This is a good location for one of the UK’s rarest butterflies, the Glanville Fritillary, which favours constantly eroding landslips where their foodplant, Ribwort Plantain, can grow. At first it looked like the black caterpillars being farmed by the cuckoo were those of the Glanville Fritillary although caterpillars of the Brown-tail moth look similar and it was probably those. I am told that later in its stay it did indeed turn its attention to the Glanville Fritillary caterpillars which is likely to have a significant effect on the UK’s population! 

The silvery-grey head and lack of chestnut in the primaries suggest that this is an adult bird, at least two years old. I have seen Great Spotted Cuckoo in the UK twice before. The Dawlish Warren bird in the spring of 1990 and then a bird at Pennington Marshes in Hampshire in the spring of 2000. The first birder we had met told us that this cuckoo had been harassed by crows and it reminded me that the Dawlish bird had actually been killed by crows. This is probably because Great Spotted Cuckoos parasitise the nests of crows and magpies in Spain and so it seems likely that crows are genetically programmed to see them as threats. 

The cuckoo was last seen on the 18th April and so had enjoyed the cliff slopes here for almost a month. The Hoopoe, Wheatear and Great Spotted Cuckoo take my year list to 165.

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