This is my all time favourite shot. It would not have been possible without the help of an expert, here, Oxford cuckoo guru Mike Bayliss. The aim was to film a cuckoo laying in a reed warbler's nest, and several times we had come very close. After many hours in the hide I heard this female land heavily in the reeds to the right of the nest - I can still hardly believe it happened.
Wildlife cameraman filming cuckoos
I’m a wildlife cameraman and I have been filming cuckoos in different parts of the UK for years now. Cuckoos are remarkable birds. Why not learn a little more about them here. Much of my cuckoo filming has been nest based – in fact my all time favourite shot was filmed at a reed warbler nest in Oxfordshire. Here’s a link to the shot. Cuckoo egg predation.
Filming cuckoos away from a nest is quite challenging. In the right habitat you will hear cuckoos quite commonly in April and May. When they have just arrived back from Africa they can be a little, shall we say, ‘tamer’. Why is this? We can only surmise, but it’s probably because they’re hungry and exhausted. Possibly they are also determined to stake a claim on a territory and nothing else matters. Wildlife can sometimes become blind to potential threats when it is preoccupied with breeding strategy. As the breeding season wears on, in my experience, they become more flighty and secretive. But that is just my experience, which is probably relatively limited.
Filming cuckoos calling
It seems a shame to have to write this without having filmed this properly. For sure, I have filmed male cuckoos calling many times, but never to my absolute satisfaction. As far as I’m concerned there is only one way to go about this. In the past I have filmed this behaviour from a long way away with a telephoto lens. Doing it this way is unsatisfactory for a couple or reasons: clarity of image is one, as heat haze was usually an issue; closeness was a second, as the shots were never true close ups. Sound recording at such range would also have any sound recordist tearing their hair out.
Filming cuckoos calling in reed bed habitat should be relatively straightforward. If you’re in good cuckoo territory with strongly calling males start with basic field work. Male cuckoos will have their favourite calling posts. Around reed beds this will almost always be a tree without foliage, or a high branch of a tree without foliage. Cuckoos are not shy when it comes to calling posts. Place a really well camouflaged hide as close to it as is necessary. Wait in the hide from before sunrise and hope for the best. Unhappily I’ve never, in the course of filming for a TV programme, had the opportunity to to this.
This year we were filming for a series based in Snowdonia. The picture above shows the territory, and over a huge area we could hear 3 male cuckoos calling. According to our reliable contact, and my own experience bears this out, when the cuckoos first arrived back in this territory they were relatively approachable. When we were there they were not so confiding. Rather than having just a few ‘ideal’ perches to call from they were choosing just about any pine or spruce top that took their fancy. It was a needle in a haystack situation.
For an hour we sat it out in a hide near what appeared to be a favoured tree, and nothing came near the tree. Well to be honest an hour wasn’t anywhere near enough – you’re hoping for a lucky break giving it just that amount of time. Ask any wildlife cameraman about filming cuckoos and they’ll say the same.
A little bit of luck?
We moved to another area which was similar but in a valley bottom and again there were 3 cuckoos in the vicinity. One of them was very active, calling from different song posts and feeding on the ground. Given time me may have established favourite song perches, but we were only there for an hour or so. We watched it charging around its territory for a while until it approached to within filming range. Now this is the problem with uncharacteristically lovely days in the Welsh uplands. There was a very bad heat haze.
This cuckoo perched on the electric wires above the lane quite close to our position. Even though I could frame a close up of the bird the heat haze wrecked the shot. It was impossible to establish a point of sharp focus with the ambient conditions. My guess is that we were fifty metres or so from the bird.
Next year I’ll do being a wildlife cameraman in my own time, and to a point the pressure of actually filming cuckoos will be off. Quite where I do that around my home I’m not sure. Cuckoos are not as common as they once were around here. There was a time when you’d even have them on quite ordinary farmland. Here’s to next year.