A black-billed cuckoo was discovered recently at Colonel Francis Beatty Park, and for a few lucky birders, it stayed around to be relocated for a few days.
Black-billed cuckoos are rarely reported as they migrate through our area. They pass through every year but generally pass under the birder’s radar. Though they are fairly large birds, cuckoos spend a lot of time sitting still and when they do forage through the canopy it is often at a deliberate pace. I have only seen the black-billed cuckoo in Mecklenburg County three or four times.
There are two species of cuckoos here, the yellow-billed cuckoo being the other species. The yellow-billed cuckoo nests here and is much more commonly reported. Both species share the same deliberate behaviors. As each species’ name suggests, the bill color is a distinguishing mark but sometimes it can be hard to see. Patience is sometimes required until the bird moves its head just right to give a good view. In good light, when the yellow-billed flies, rufous patches can be seen on the out-stretched wings. The black-billed lacks these patches.
Both cuckoo species are very long and slim-bodied. Both have very long tails. Their flight profile makes identification fairly easy for experienced birders when the birds fly across the road or flush from a thicket. Identification as to species while in flight is difficult but you can tell it’s a cuckoo.
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When the black-billed cuckoo is calling vigorously it really can sound like a cuckoo clock with its fast paced rhythmic coo- coo- coo, coo- coo- coo. Other times the calls are more muted, almost sounding like they are whispered. The two species can sound similar but with experience a birder can figure out which species is being heard.
The recent black-billed cuckoo was very cooperative, calling frequently to let searching birders locate it. It is not often that any migrating bird will repeatedly call over several days, so we were very fortunate in the regard with that bird.
There are other goodies out there right now to be found too. Migration is peaking and any wind with a northerly component will bring new birds through. I suspect some more local rarities will be found before September is done.
Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com. Check out his blog at piedmontbirding.blogspot.com