The plight of the cuckoo: a 4,000-mile flight followed by golf

When you’ve just braved sandstorms, thunderstorms and drought during a 4,000-mile solo flight in search of romance, what is your first priority?

For Carlton II the cuckoo, it appears to be a relaxing round of golf. The satellite-tagged bird became the first of a small flock of tracked cuckoos to return to his breeding grounds in record time, dashing from the Ivory Coast to southern England in seven days.

The British Trust for Ornithology’s satellite tag revealed that upon nearing home, Carlton II stopped at Dulwich & Sydenham Hill golf club in south London before a brief visit to Farnham Park golf club in Berkshire. He then moved on to another golf course at nearby Burnham Beeches.

Carlton II – named after his favourite nature reserve, Carlton Marshes, in Suffolk – may have some time on his hands after overtaking two other cuckoos tracked by the BTO. PJ and Senan are currently feeding in Spain and North Africa.

The nine-year tagging study in which young birds are tagged each year is shedding new light upon the migratory cycle of the cuckoo, helping scientists understand the species’ alarming decline.

The call that once echoed across valleys in spring is increasingly rare: Britain has lost three-quarters of its breeding cuckoos over the last 25 years.

Dr Chris Hewson, BTO lead scientist on the project, said: “It is great to see Carlton II getting back to the UK so quickly. Taking just a week to cover more than 3,000 miles from Liberia to Berkshire is an awesome feat and something even swifts don’t manage.

“This shows us just how quickly these harbingers of spring can get here from tropical Africa when conditions for their journey are good. It’s a journey so full of hazards that it’s always a relief when they get back, no matter how fast or slow.

“These cuckoos have taught us so much about their lives, giving answers but also raising more questions as to what might be behind their decline.”

Pressures along their route, including habitat loss but also drought caused by climate change, are making the cuckoo’s epic journeying more hazardous.

Carlton II has clocked up 22,000 miles since he was fitted with an ultra-light tag at Carlton Marshes in 2018 but still has a way to go to emulate the travels of Chris Packham, a cuckoo named after the naturalist and broadcaster.

Chris the cuckoo returned to Britain for four successive summers, flying more than 50,000 miles and traversing 28 different countries on his migration from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe. On one occasion, the bird diverted hundreds of miles off his usual course to Angola. After gaining fans worldwide, Chris the cuckoo disappeared soon after departing England for a final time in July 2015.

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