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Cuckoos in the Cambrian Mountains

The location

This year I have been filming cuckoos in the Cambrian Mountains. I find it hard to believe that two years ago I was also filming cuckoos. Time flies. At that time I predicted that I would take time to film cuckoos on my own, a wildlife cameraman ‘doing his own thing.’ For one reason and another I never did that, but this year cuckoos cropped up on the filming call sheet again.

Cuckoos in the Cambrian Mountains
One of the cuckoo filming sites

The Series – Cambrian Mountains

The series is about the Cambrian Mountains. There is a good chance of seeing cuckoos in the Cambrian Mountains, well, certain parts at least. The Cambrian Mountains consists of a relatively unpublicised land area in the centre of Wales. Our chosen area for cuckoos was at the northern end of the Elan Valley. This area is well known for a succession of large dams. The dams were built to supply water to the Midlands. Tourists will be familiar with the valley.

Male Cuckoo

We already had some very nice shots of a male cuckoo in the can. In fact, I’d say it would have been hard to get better. We achieved this with an active site and camouflage netting. The cuckoo was calling regularly from the top of a stand of coniferous trees but also called from lower perches. The bird seemed to call most in the mornings, afternoon and evenings. But what about the female; we wanted to film her too.

Female Cuckoos

Filming cuckoos in the Cambrian Mountains, even the female, is probably not much different to filming them anywhere else. She seems to be a more elusive bird than the male and tends to skulk about. When you see her it will often be in flight, and her flight is fast and direct. Sometimes you will see her with one or more males in pursuit, calling her bubbling call which is so different to that of the male. She will perch, and when she does small birds, in our case meadow pipits, will mob her. Like any bird she needs to feed and in our territory we saw her come to the ground to search for large caterpillars.

Success or not

I will say now that we were only partly successful with filming cuckoos in the Cambrian Mountains, but we didn’t have long, just a day.

Female cuckoo through viewfinder with mobile phone

On a previous visit we had seen the female cuckoo perching in a dead tree down by a stream, and she used the tree as a hunting perch. We decided to concentrate on this tree and hope that both sexes used it at the same time. Conveniently I was able to get under cover at the edge of a dark conifer plantation. Draped in the ubiquitous camouflage netting I practically vanished, I think, because you should never underestimate a cuckoo. Anyway, it worked, but the female only came to that tree twice in the whole day, and she didn’t do much when he came. On the screenshot you can see a pipit in the bottom left hand corner giving her a hard time.


I will go back to this site as a wildlife cameraman busman’s holiday, but that will be next year. We saw some great behaviour at this site but at a distance through some very heavy heat haze. You have to get as close as you can and you can’t just walk up to a cuckoo. There’s some exciting behaviour to be filmed here next year, or will it be the year after that.

wildlife cameraman private eye

wildlife cameraman private eye

When you had your careers advice chat at school were you disappointed? I was, because the adviser told me that there was no such job as ‘naturalist’. How things have changed, and for the better. It’s so different now, and I wonder what they’d have thought if I’d said I wanted to be a wildlife cameraman private eye?

wildlife cameraman private eye
arboreal, omnivorous, mildly irritating

the curtain twitched

A coniferous forest in Scotland, I think that’s a good place to film red squirrels. Here I am sitting in a car in Anglesey and thinking of wilder places. I’m breaking the tedium by listening to Pop Master on Radio 2 with Ken Bruce. I haven’t seen a squirrel for several hours and the curtains are starting to twitch. This is a respectable neighbourhood with leaf blowers and litter by Sainsburys, and I feel watched. The hand of a wealthy pensioner twitches a curtain to look at the stranger in the camouflaged hat and she calls neighbourhood watch. I knew I should never have ditched the SAAB. Affronted by my thoughts the windows of the little C4 steam up even more.

wildlife cameraman private eye

nothing happened… absolutely nothing

Time ticks on, and despite me answering an obscure question about Showaddywaddy my spirits remain low. A man shuffles down his drive to blow leaves from his lawn onto the street and pretends he isn’t writing down my car number. Thanks mate, I mumble, red squirrels just love the sound of a leaf blower.

“Have you seen anything Gra?” The 2 way radio disturbs an abstract reverie involving beach volleyball players and radio microphones. There’s another car down the street containing the rest of the crew and I count my blessings. That car must be like an ice hockey changing room by now and when the wind’s in the right direction I’m sure I can smell it. “No,” I reply honestly, and I smear away the condensation to check there are no squirrels sitting on the bonnet.

another hour and another

The radio messages come thicker and faster as our communication, like the leaves, head for the gutter. I hear, “There’s more chance of seeing a red squirrel at a pencil museum,” before the battery goes flat, and it’s just as well, because I was devoid of a witty riposte. Suddenly my heart jumps and I make ready to man the camera. I can see something with a bushy tail creeping along behind the cotoneaster. But it’s a false alarm; I’ve been duped by an immensely fat tabby and I now hate cats even more.

maybe another time

As the hours drag I resign myself to the prospect of not seeing a red squirrel cavorting on this particular suburban street today. Somebody raps on the car window and I see a very refined looking lady holding a tray of fine china cups and shortbread biscuits. Bless her: I am the object of someone’s pity. If it had been the police I would not have been in the least surprised, and perhaps a little relieved that police on the street actually do exist in these times of austerity. The lady is lovely, and the shortbread biscuits, imbued with a hint of lemon, are just fine. Soon the whole crew is huddled around, lamenting our lack of success with the philosophy of, ‘Maybe another time.’ That’s the end of my time as a wildlife cameraman private eye, for today at least, so roll on the next time, and the next…

For more information about red squirrels have a look here and ponder on the injustice of having vulgaris in your scientific name.

dark wet miserable brilliant

dark wet miserable brilliant

Being a wildlife cameraman isn’t all fun, but usually there is positive to be had. That’s why I’ve called this ‘dark wet miserable brilliant.’

dark wet miserable brilliant
Respect the lens – not!

One day in early December we set out to film a couple more sequences in our city life series. The forecast said ‘dark wet miserable brilliant.’ OK, it didn’t say brilliant, but that’s how it turned out. We spent a few minutes filming a mistle thrush defending berries on very large hawthorn bushes, then it started to pour down and we dived for shelter. The we headed for location two, a little underwhelmed by the day so far.

pied wagtails

We have a running joke within our crew about the most boring birds to film, but where would we be without those birds? Sometimes, and I imagine this is a typical wildlife cameraman thing, I stand around longing for something to film. Herring gull, meadow pipit, carrion crow, grey wagtail and pied wagtail all fit into our ‘desperation’ group. But where would we be without them. I like these birds! On this occasion we had actually gone out there to film pied wagtails. For more information about pied wagtails.

sony A7s

I have to be honest, I’m not a great fan of using stills form cameras for video, but they can come into their own. We reached location two just as the sun waved goodbye to the metropolis of downtown Newport. That’s that’s what I want to do whenever I’m in Newport, wave goodbye to it. Sorry, only joking, sort of. The lighting we were now enjoying came from streetlights, car headlights, shop facades, Christmas decorations and the beaming faces of native Newport people. It was a bit dark to be fair.

the arrival

Dark wet miserable brilliant. This is where we get to the brilliant bit. Apart from being the best selling album of 1997 ‘the arrival’ was something that our crew awaited with eager anticipation. Wildlife cameraman. director, presenter and sound recordist, all standing on the side of the road in Newport waiting for the little grey birds to arrive. Yes, it was a waiting game, but the researcher knew it was worth the wait. One by one the pied wagtails flew in to perch on the buildings around Friar’s Walk, coming in from all directions.

As their numbers increased a peregrine shot across, trying its luck. Then, in waves, they flew down from the buildings to roost in some birch trees right in the middle of a traffic island. We filmed them fly past buses full of commuters heading home, oblivious to what was happening just a few feet away. Headlights played across these fragile little creatures as they settled down to roost. Finally they tucked their heads back for a night in this most unlikely place.


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