A splendid weekend playing with the out-laws and that there London still allowed me to make a break for it yesterday morning and explore Thursley Heath, out past the M25 in rural Surrey.
I felt I’d earned it after shopping in Staines (“upon-Thames”, I do beg your pudding), negotiating the tube system into the West End on a Bank Holiday Friday night, and getting all cultured-up with a visit to “The Mousetrap”.
The latter was fascinating as we enjoyed a lovely old theatre and full house for the who-dunnit.
The cast swears you to secrecy at the end of course, but even so I was disappointed when the yellow plastic cage failed to drop on any mice during the performance I witnessed.
It wasn’t how I remembered the game at all.
So it was a treat to motor west down the M25 from Staines (etc etc) at 06.30 yesterday, leaving the Red Kites*, Ring Necked Parakeets and Green Woodpeckers of suburbia behind, and over-taking a Hobby beside the mother of all ring-roads before walking out onto the acidic bog and heath landscape of Thursley at 0715.
I love a heathland, and Thursley is the biggest tract left in Surrey.
When I arrived, a bitter, strong northerly was ripping across the site and it felt really cold, making hunting for snakes and Raft Spiders fairly pointless.
Luckily I was looking forward to a good explore.
Woodlarks were calling and feeding in open areas, either backlit and coy, or a distant, and it was marvellous watching that swooping flight when these short-tailed bat-winged larks passed overhead…
The high winds kept singing Redstarts low and Dartford Warblers even lower, although I did come across one individual brave enough to sit up for a scratchy warble in a corner of gorse sheltered by regenerating birch scrub.
Scanning the side of the tracks for Adders without success I came across flowering Bogbean, Greater Stitchwort, Large Red Damselfly, Common Lizard and what looked like some type of Lousewort flowering out on the inaccessible bog… (botanical assistance required – Phil?)
One or two pairs of Curlews breed here, and they displayed over the bogs – it was strange to see ’em on territory so far south.
Five Crossbill flew over, calling as they headed for the pine belt on the horizon and as I moved towards the trees the song of Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff and Redstarts got louder.
I saw a group of big lenses camped out in a clearing and realised this was the “Colin the Cuckoo” fan club.
Colin isn’t his birth-name you understand, it’s another nickname bestowed on a wild bird, further anthropomorphising nature, and to my mind, devaluing it.
I’m not a Robin-stroker, even though as it turns out, I could have given “Colin” a serious fondling he was so tame…
This Cuckoo has been habituated to come in for mealworms here for the last few years, and I was intrigued to see how bold it was, especially as the big lens brigade were sitting less than ten feet from a series of carefully placed perches in the clearing.
Surely a Cuckoo wouldn’t be that unwary????
The snappers seemed a friendly enough bunch and I sat down to wait and see if the bird appeared.
It was an easy vigil as Redstarts and Stonechats flitted in and out right in front of me, and a pair of Woodlark fed in the middle distance.
I thought this was like shooting fish in a barrel until Colin swept in after singing from the tree-line.
Colin is a tart.
Pure and simple.
He posed for the cameras for 25 minutes before dropping onto the deck for mealworms three feet from us, then returned to flirt on the painfully photogenic perches provided.
Almost certainly, but I was bewitched for an hour as the bird came closer and closer.
I’ve never been this near to a wild Cuckoo for so long before, even if my humble P900 was a bit inadequate in the presence of camouflaged big lenses, camouflaged fleeces, hats and camouflaged undercrackers.
Click click clicketty click.
I started to feel strangely guilty when I watched the bird rather than photographed it point-blank.
Weird, time to get birding again…
I discreetly edged away from Colin and his fan club and headed back across the heath, pondering the whole “photography/birder” thing, before joining the slow-crawl east along the M25 back to the big smoke.
Finally, many thanks to Scott, Yasmin, the brilliant Fat Rafa (no, not that one) and the lads for their wonderful hospitality and a great weekend – looking forward to seeing you all again soon…
*22 Red Kites on the drive down the M40 on Thursday, 30 on the way back today….