The Fledging of the Fall, or, not every black-billed cuckoo is a Black-billed Cuckoo
The text came in at around 1:30 pm and I was out of the house by 1:32.
Bbcu at fews ford
Four words, and a bomb had come off in my brain. Black-billed Cuckoo, one of the last few breeding birds in North Carolina that has successfully, unbelievably, bizarrely stayed out of my grasp. They’re not common anywhere. They have strange breeding requirements. And they’re not reliably twitched anywhere in the state. It’s one of those bird you just have to stumble upon down at these lattitudes, and I hadn’t managed to stumble on anything resembling a Black-billed Cuckoo yet.
Until Friday afternoon, when my friend Robert Meehan texted a handful of birders in the area the news that he had discovered not one, but two Black-billed Cuckoos working the Sweetgums at one of the trailheads at Eno River State Park not 15 minutes, as the Mazda flies, from my doorstep. So yeah, I was out the door in a flash. The grocery store can wait.
And I found them too. Well, one of them. As soon as I stepped out of the car and wrapped my optics around my neck I found Robert standing at the far end of the lot, pointing nonchalantly up at the trees where an unseen cuckoo was clucking. It wasn’t the classic cu-cu-cu-cu call, but more like a turkey, and it matched one of the alternate calls on the Sibley app pretty accurately, so I was happy with that. Now to spot it.
My wish was not long in the making when an awkward, long, gray, cuckoo snaked its way into view. Everything seemed to check out. Short, black bill. Dark eyering (not red, but it was cloudy so I wasn’t concerned). The bird was grayish with no obvious signs of rufous anywhere. When the tail flashed into view briefly it didn’t have any obvious white. I threw my camera up to get the shots. Clicked through a few and settled in to check out this life bird.
Robert continued on birding, so I went home and reported it to the listserv, like you do, and settled in to go over by lifer bird photos. The fact that the tail was not immediately evident in the photos was weird, but not incredibly concerning. I figured foreshortening had played a roll, or, at worst, the bird had had some sort of run-in with an Accipiter and had gotten away by the skin of its retrices. Besides, the birds furtive behavior prevented me from getting the look that may have caused me to pause. In any case, I justified it. I had no inkling that this bird was anything other than a slightly odd Black-billed Cuckoo. At least that what I wanted it to be.
Andrew Thornton e-mailed me the next morning. Andrew is a sharp birder, relatively recently arrived here from Florida and doing the yeoman’s work of ebirding the hell out of Randolph County, one of the least birded in the state. He noted that something seemed wrong about this bird, particularly in Robert’s photos which showed the dinky tail much more clearly. He said that all the field marks were there, but not for Black-billed. For fledgling Yellow-billed.
My jaw dropped. My palm found my forehead. And everything instantly made sense.
See, Cuckoos are really really strange birds, and they have some really really odd habits. Not the least of which is the fact that they occasionally brood a second time very late in the year. I had read here and there about the second brooding birds in the desert southwest, essentially late summer monsoons get the hormones running again for several species that spend a little time there before continuing south. Species known to do this include Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Yellow-breasted Chats and Orchard Orioles. The scientific term is “itinerant breeding”. Turns out some species do it in the east too, though it’s less pronounced. Interestingly enough, North Carolina’s first coastal plain breeding record of Black-billed Cuckoo was a very latish brood in Craven County, so these birds, as my friend Scott Winton says in the linked post, seem to exist to defy conventional wisdom. After all, a fledgling bird in late September was just about the last thing on my radar at this time.
In any case, Yellow-billed Cuckoos just out of the nest have, for a brief period of time, black bills and dark orbital rings. In several field guides this juvenal plumage is alluded too but not illustrated. Sibley shows the head (but not the stubby tail), and only Ted Floyd’s Smithsonian guide shows a photo of this very confusing stage in the life of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.
It got me wondering how well other birders know this potential pitfall if I was completely unaware of it. How many Black-billed Cuckoo records in North Carolina, heck, in the eastern US, are potentially mistaken? Who knows? But if there’s someone out there that can learn from my mistakes, I will have considered this learning experience worth it.
So, in the interest of being honest I penned a retraction that went out to the listserv. The embarrassment of the mistake is lessened somewhat my own admission of culpability. I expect what reputation I, and Robert for that matter, have to still be intact, however, what birder among us hasn’t made a few mistakes? Particularly with regard to a bird as bizarre as this one. I know a few top NC birders that have made errors at least as embarrassing, and if we’re not willing to own up to them as opportunities to learn and to share that lesson with others than perhaps we should re-evaluate why we’re into this birding thing.
So I’m still on the lookout for a Black-billed Cuckoo. If you see one in North Carolina, you know where to find me.