What does cuckoo land look like?

mug_shot_toby_smith-150This time last year photo-journalist Toby Smith completed a two-week expedition to Gabon, and the incredible Batéké Plateau, on a collaboration started from within the University of Cambridge. The project was jointly funded and carried out with the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), Society for Wildlife Artists and the ESRC. Toby’s role on the expedition was funded by the ESRC through an Impact Acceleration Account.

Here he writes about his mission with Malcolm Green – an oral storyteller – to document the physical and social landscapes of Gabon as frequented by British cuckoos on their annual winter migration to West Africa.

Millions of birds that breed in summer across Europe migrate to winter in tropical Africa. In both seasons, birds share landscapes that are undergoing rapid economic and environmental transition. Many of these migratory bird species are now declining in numbers. Changes in rural landscapes in Africa are widely believed to be important in these declines, but the links between socio-economic processes, landscape ecology and declines in migrant birds are poorly understood.

Previous collaborative research between the Departments of Geography and Zoology at the University of Cambridge, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) explored the social, economic and policy drivers of land use change in the drylands of West Africa that may be associated with migrant bird declines.

Bridge over the River Sele, Haut-OgooueSubsequent research by Dr Chris Hewson of BTO has involved satellite tagging of migratory birds such as the nightingale and the cuckoo, both of which have declined markedly to trace their migration pathways and their wintering grounds in Africa.

With many migratory bird populations in decline it’s important we increase our understanding of their wintering habitats and attempt to focus our resolve further from the comfort of our own island nation.

Cuckoo Perch, YemengaWith this in mind I developed a unique photography project, with an itinerary, destination and ambitious end-goal dictated by the satellite datasets of the BTO. In January 2016 Malcom Green and I set about ‘chasing’ and documenting the African habitat of the cuckoos. For us both, one of the most satisfying and defining moments of the trip was when we finally approached the first of our waypoints.

In the field
We felt excitement, disbelief and relief as we squinted at the cursor on my GPS screen. After six exhausting days of travelling – 15 hours of flights, 18 hours by train, 220km off-road driving and 8km on foot – we finally stood in a picturesque valley frequented by two of Chris Hewson’s tagged cuckoos.

The R16, LekoniThe hand-held GPS loaded with historic cuckoo flight data –  and our stubborn resolve – had led us to a remote part of the Bateke Plateau, in the far East of Gabon close to the Congolese border.

Visually the landscape could be the sister of Cumbria or central Wales where many British cuckoos, despite their dwindling numbers, still reside for part of the year. In Gabon, lone trees, serving as ideal perches, studded the verdant grass and rolling scrubland all surrounded by rich gallery forest under a pale blue sky. However, my four other senses painted a very different picture to that of temperate Britain where I had witnessed the cuckoos being tagged. The air in Africa was fragrant but arid, the sun blindingly fierce and the heat oppressive.

Suddenly the noise and pestilence of thousands of sweat bees descended and forced our retreat into the cool mosaic forest. As we caught our breath and celebrated, a curtain of butterflies landed at our feet. I had heard that cuckoos feast on caterpillars.

Back to earth

Three Sisters, EkwyWhen receiving the IAA funding from the ESRC my aim was for the resulting photography to help support a series of public and NGO engagement opportunities around the research. The end product has formed one of the principal outputs of my Leverhulme Trust Artist Residency at the University of Cambridge Research Conservation Institute – combining an artistic approach with an academic question and a conservation need.

The project debuted on the header of the Guardian online Environment section and had a huge interaction via social media. The project was then featured by Cambridge University’s Research Horizons magazine before contributing to a series of public and conservation sector events.

Grassland, Bateke PlateauFinally, ‘Chasing Cuckoos’ was exhibited in autumn 2016 as a series of 12 large-format prints at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas 2016 with the Museum of Zoology and Cambridge Conservation Initiative. These prints are now available as a touring exhibition for further public engagement throughout 2017.


Dr Hewson’s datasets catalysed my interest and set our course back in 2016. On our return from the expedition, it was clear that our work had been important to his project.

“Future land use change in the Gabon is likely to accelerate. To have Toby’s eye witness account now is really important. Even finding that people rarely see cuckoos there is instructive for us – it shows what we are going to be up against when we go out there. It helps us to piece this together with knowledge of migration routes, to provide a more fully formed idea of what happens to the cuckoo for the major part of its annual cycle.”

As a senior research ecologist at BTO, to hear him say that the work has substantially furthered research within the field makes me and Malcolm and very proud.

Dr Hewson has already begun a similar cuckoo tagging project in China to reveal where in Africa they migrate to. The project there has also been started with public and critically school education at its heart. I am looking forwards to working with them again in 2017 and hopefully bring similar success both in international media. local talks and print exhibitions.

You can follow @tobysmithphoto on Twitter. Learn more about the project on the University of Cambridge website.

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