Unfortunately, cuckoos are now notable for their absence. I used to hear a cuckoo at the beginning of spring every year without fail. It was commonplace. I had no idea, then, that the cuckoo had returned from West Africa (and to this day, to think of the cuckoo and nightingale populating the forests of the Congo Basin is to experience an acute category malfunction). Nor did I realise that I would not hear another for many years – I have heard only two cuckoos, I think, in the past quarter century, one in Norway, and one in Greece; and I have heard only one nightingale in my life, in the centre of Copenhagen.In fact the number of cuckoos in Britain has halved over the last twenty years, and continues to fall. The tracking project is largely designed to find out why, by tracing the journeys (and, ahem, terminations) of a number of cuckoos. You can follow their individual journeys here.
Larry, to take an example, was in Lancashire on the 21st June this year, but by 24th June had crossed most of Europe, and had arrived in Hungary (just south of a small village called Narai), where he spent a week, taking a breather; he then crossed through Croatia, over the Adriatic to Italy, and by 31st July was in southern Libya, after which he tarried for a month in southern Chad, recuperating from his flight over the Sahara desert; by 1st October he had crossed the equator, and is now in a forest close to Ekoungounou in the Republic of the Congo (not to be confused with the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Last winter Larry sojourned in Angola, so he may have a bit of travelling still to do.
Larry is not the only migratory creature in equatorial Africa. Photojournalist Toby Smith, first Leverhulme artist-in-residence at the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute, has been packed off in pursuit of the cuckoos, working mainly in Gabon, in part photographing landscapes as a research aid, and in part trying to understand something of the cultures which host the cuckoo at the other end.
An exhibition of Toby Smith’s photographs can be seen at The Podium in the David Attenborough building on the New Museums’ Site, as part of the Festival of Ideas.