Toby Smith

This  multi-tiered collaboration started from within the University of Cambridge.  The project was joint funded and in conjunction with the British Trust for Ornitholigy (BTO), Society for Wildlife Artists (SWLA) and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) . The trip was completed, with Malcolm Green – an oral storyteller, to document the exact physical landscapes revealed by a unique study on satellite tagged Cuckoos completed by Dr Chris Hewson of the BTO.

With many migratory bird-populations in decline its important we increase our understanding of their wintering habitats.  It was both amazing and challenging to photograph a specific area of Africa on an assignment dictated purely by the exact location of an endangered animal. 

 This photography project will also form one of the principal outputs of my Leverhulme Trust Residency at The University of Cambridge Conservation Institute. 

We have lost over half the number of Cuckoos in the UK over the last 20 years..

Since 2011 the BTO have been satellite-tracking Cuckoos to find out why. They have learned vital information which could help us to understand our Cuckoos –  about the routes they have taken, and some of the pressures they face whilst on migration.

When the BTO began their study, they had very little idea where these birds spent the winter or how they got there. Their latest research and a paper published in Nature Communications not only reveals this information, but also shows that the Cuckoos’ use of autumn migration routes helps explain population declines.  The live progress of this year’s study birds can be monitored via the BTO’s web page.

A male cuckoo, named Patch, had journeyed from here in East Anglia to Gabon on a 3200km migratory odyssey that included crossing the Mediterranean Sea and Sahara Desert.  I spent a number of months scrutinising the BTO’s historic satellite data and planning an expedition to 3 remote areas.  Patch’s exact destination had dictated the exact locations that I would visit and photograph.


Spotting a cuckoo would have been fantastic  but, from a visual perspective, it wouldn’t have told us anything new. I wasn’t there as a birdwatcher, I was there as a documentary photographer. I was more interested in experiencing and engaging with the natural and social landscape of these birds. Very little scientific attention had been paid to this area – even Gabon’s most prolific birder hadn’t been there in 35 years.

“The most important element in land use change in this region is the rural household and the opportunity to present the landscapes in photographs that help us understand woodland management and agricultural practice was very attractive.”  

Bill Adams – Head of Geography at Cambridge University

“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-meal 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.”

Dr Chris Hewson – BTO

Special thanks to all of the organisation and individuals I have cited and linked to in the above article and also The University of Cambridge Communications Team. This page includes excerpts originally compiled for Research Horizons  (p6-9 inclusive) and the BTO website.

How to Tag a Cuckoo

Public Seminar – Wednesday 1st February –  1:00pm -> 2:00pm

Wolfson College, Combination Room, Cambridge,  CB3 9BB

Toby Smith, photojournalist and Senior Member of Wolfson College, presents a tour of the Bateke Plateau and forests of Gabon. This unique and beautiful documentary series visualises the remote landscapes and people discovered on an expedition to the wintering grounds of satellite-tagged migratory cuckoos.


Public Exhibition  –  Daylight Hours –  12th October -> 7th November 

The Podium, David Attenborough Building, Pembroke Street,

New Museums Site, Cambridge, CB2 3QZ   

Part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas



Public Talk – Tuesday 18 October –  6:00pm -> 7:30pm

David Attenborough Building, Seminar Room,  Pembroke Street, 

New Museums Site, Cambridge, CB2 3QZ

This event will explain, explore and entertain the endangered Cuckoo’s incredible annual migration to West Africa via the Mediterranean and Sahara Desert. A 3 part event will move from a platform of science provided by the British Trust for Ornithology, through the lens of photojournalist Toby Smith and finale with a performance by oral storyteller Malcolm Green.

Free Event as part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas – BOOK HERE


Chasing Cuckoos featured by the Guardian Environment Desk.