Satellite-tracked cuckoo takes surprise route to Africa

Cuckoo with GPS tag (Image: BTO) Lyster has taken an unexpected route back to Africa from the UK

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A satellite-tracked male cuckoo has taken a "surprising" route on his way back to Africa this summer.

The team from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) monitoring his movements thought he would follow the same route as last year.

However, instead of flying west around the Sahara Desert he was tracked 1,000km east on the Algerian coast, ten days earlier than his 2011 route.

The team think favourable conditions could be responsible for the change.

The cuckoo known as Lyster is one of five cuckoos that were satellite tagged by the BTO in May 2011 to record their migratory patterns.

The study has already shown how little time these birds spend in Britain and where in Africa they spend the winter.

Experts hope it may also provide insights into why there has been a 50% decline in British cuckoos over the last 25 years.

Summer visitors

Portrait of a swift
  • A 2010 survey by the RSPB revealed that, of the 10 UK birds which have declined the most since 1995, eight are summer migrants, including the cuckoo, turtle dove, yellow wagtail and nightingale
  • Common swifts favour a life in the air where they feed, drink, mate and even sleep on the wing
  • Nightingales are famous for their beautiful night time vocal abilities which can consist of over 200 variations
  • Migrating swallows cover 200 miles a day at speeds up to 35 mph
  • Puffins only return from the sea to breed. A single chick, known as a puffling, is raised in an underground burrow

In 2011, Lyster was tracked from the Norfolk Broads to north east Morocco before skirting around the Sahara on his journey to the Congo Basin's rainforest.

The route included a short 10km crossing of the open ocean between Europe and North Africa at the Strait of Gibraltar.

Paul Stancliffe, part of the cuckoo-tracking team, told BBC Nature that they "expected Lyster to follow the same route as last year".

"But to our surprise it was 1,000km east after an extraordinary 500km crossing of the Mediterranean Sea," Mr Stancliffe said.

A potential reason for this change in route is that he found it a suitable habitat after having travelled through the same region of Algeria earlier in 2012 during his journey from Africa to the UK.

Another explanation is that he simply drifted off course.

Lyster arrived in Algeria on August 1 and remained there for two days before setting off in the late afternoon of August 3.

He headed south west, flying diagonally across the Sahara Desert and is currently in southern Mauritania.

"It will be interesting to see if he makes his way to his 2011 stopover location," Mr Stancliffe told BBC Nature.

Although five birds were tagged in 2011, the only other surviving signal comes from a cuckoo called Chris.

Chris is currently south of the Sahara on the northern shore of Lake Chad, 2,000km north of his 2011 stopover location.

He has followed a very similar route to the one he took last year, flying straight over the Sahara.

To provide further data, another 11 cuckoos were tagged by the BTO this year, taking the total number of traceable birds to 13.

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