Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Going Cuckoo in Mecklenburg County

Yesterday was a special day for spring migration birding. Poor flying weather had grounded the northbound migrants for the previous two days but Sunday night cleared and the breezes carried a flood of migrants into the southern Piedmont.

One of those birds was a black-billed cuckoo that finally settled down at Harrisburg Road Park to refuel by searching for caterpillars. 

That's where I happened to be too, and if that bird hadn't decided to give its rhythmic coo-coo-coo coo-coo-coo song, I would have never known it was there. 

There are two cuckoo species that are found in North Carolina. The yellow-billed cuckoo nests here, is pretty common, and is much more vocal. The black-billed cuckoo is more mysterious. It doesn't nest in the Piedmont. A small population nests in the mountains but even there it is a tough bird to find. Though both cuckoos are large birds ( larger than a sharp-shinned hawk), they can be extremely tough to see. They often sit motionless in the tree canopy or thick brush, and when they do move it is with a sluggish demeanor. Sometimes you just have to lucky to see them.

I have seen black-billed cuckoo just once before in Mecklenburg County; some 20 years ago. There is a report or two every year but they typically move on before local birders can see them. This time I was able to alert some locals who did show up in time to see and hear this odd bird.

Below is a comparison of the two cuckoo species in our area:

The main physical difference between the two is the bill color. note the black bill on this black-billed cuckoo. But bills can be hard to see, especially on a bird hiding in thick foliage, which this species seems partial to doing. 

Black-billed Cuckoo by Blayne Olsen

The yellow bill can be readily seen on this yellow-billed cuckoo. This species is a tad less shy than its cousin but can still be hard to see. Even their songs are similar but can be told apart with some experience. 

Yellow-billed cuckoo by Blayne Olsen