Long before I decided to publish my work, to share the fun of finding things.
Her words reminded me of an excursion to the Black Mountains, 27th July 1992. I reflect on how being a nature writer has changed over that time.
A largish grey bird flew across our path into the fringe of the plantation. Margaret quickly found it, she was my birding mentor and a dear friend. Not the sparrowhawk she first thought but a juvenile cuckoo. It flew down to perch nearby on a fence post and sat squawking and thrusting its head low, beak agape, in food-begging posture. With new, lightweight binoculars I make-out cuckoo features on the fat young bird, the bright orange-red of its gape. I study the cuckoo whilst she watches pipits gathering insects to bring to the imposter. It cranes forward, demanding food. A pipit foster- parent lands on the back of the bloated creature that twists its neck to receive a beakful. Twice, this happens. Tales of the changeling cuckoo come alive before our eyes. We move nearer, and disturb it. But Margaret quickly picks it up again, now cushioned on a clump of bilberry with fine grasses outlined against the sky with a backdrop of Pen Cerrig Calch. Good light. Twice more, pipits land on the young cuckoo’s back and dip their beaks within the cuckoo’s gape. Privileged to see it, Margaret finds this gorging cuckoo ugly, as if it might swallow the foster parent too. Now the bird perches directly before its adopted progeny, a slender pipit which rears a gargoyle: all red gape, bloated, dominating, whose sole purpose is to consume. I wonder whether this cuckoo, now a substantial fledgling , lay hidden as an egg in the heather when David and I came by here in May.
We hear, and briefly see, red grouse further along the way to Pen Y Gadair Fawr.
The day is a reprise of so many earlier walks in the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons. We see Pen-Y-Fan and Cribyn, with excellent views of the horseshoe that David and I talked of for months before we did it. Table Mountain, Sugar Loaf, Twyn Y Gaer, and all those rills visible on the slopes beneath Pen Y Gadair Fawr and Waun Fach. An affirmation of place.
If I were to return to the Black Mountains I’d visit the fort at Twyn Y Gaer, and a stone circle where once we were besieged by red grouse as the light faded and a lone horseman seemed to ride out of fable. The deepest magic is not to be found on a map, the bilberry mounds with juvenile cuckoo, the springs bubbling pure from the hillside, the peregrine that flew over the ridge the moment I thought to conjure one up, a windy day when a fence sang out like an Aeolian harp and Margaret was mystified.
Ironic that in 2019 we have excellent optics, binoculars and cameras to see cuckoo. Documentaries with superb film, geo-tags and tracking devices that reveal migratory pattern and behaviour. But a dramatic decline in cuckoo, in so many species, makes seeing them for ourselves ever more unlikely.