Thursday 26 May 2016

Get me to the Cuckoo 24th May 2016

On the last evening of a four day birding trip to the fabulous Bialowieza Forest in Poland a text arrived on my phone with some news which set my heart aflutter and changed what was up to then an enjoyable and pleasant evening into one which, although still pleasant, now had an added less welcome ingredient - anxiety.

Why so? Well, the text informed me that a Black billed Cuckoo had been discovered on North Uist and was showing really well. Black billed Cuckoo and its close relative the Yellow billed Cuckoo are mega rarities in Britain and their occurrence here is becoming increasingly rare as  their populations decline in their normal home of the New World ( Summer - North America, Winter - South America).

The Yellow billed Cuckoo occurs more frequently in Britain (at a ratio of four to one) than Black billed, possibly because of their differing migration strategies. Black billed Cuckoos head in a south or southwesterly direction in autumn, migrating mainly overland through Central America to their wintering grounds in South America  and avoiding the lengthy ocean crossings undertaken by the Yellow billed Cuckoo which migrates more directly across the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean to South America  and thus is more susceptible to transatlantic vagrancy. 

The facts surrounding the latest record of a Black billed Cuckoo from North Uist made it all the more desirable as a bird to go and see

No Black billed Cuckoo had been seen in Britain since 1990, up until a single isolated record in Orkney on 23rd October 2014. A gap of 24 years. 

No Black billed Cuckoo has ever been recorded in Spring in Britain, all 14 previous records being in autumn. 

Very few of either species of these cuckoos found in Britain has survived for more than two days and only three of the past fourteen Black billed Cuckoos have been found alive on the second day. Seeing one alive here is therefore a supreme challenge as not only do they succumb quickly but they invariably turn up in remote and distant locations in Britain.

To cut a long story short six of us got to North Uist on Tuesday by private plane which cost a lot of money.

Once on North Uist we collected a pre arranged hire car and headed for a place on the island called Bayhead and the junction of the road to Paible. The sun shone and the island never looked more beautiful, with beaches of shell sand glistening white in the sunlight and a sea of various hues of green and blue lapping at the shoreline, whilst in the blue distance the romantic silhouettes of distant islands and rocky outcrops stood in eternal mute witness.

The cuckoo had last been reported at 6.15 in the morning but nothing more had been forthcoming since. We were naturally anxious and well aware that, apart from any local birders we were the first visiting birders to get to the location today. So we would probably have to find the cuckoo for ourselves. The cuckoo, judging from previous sightings had been favouring a particularly well vegetated garden by the main road but recently had started to favour a larger area but with persistence and luck could eventually be found. On arrival at Bayhead, as expected we found no sign of anyone, least of all a birder, so five of us spread out to cover as much of the area as possible. From my point of view it seemed pretty obvious that the likely locations for the cuckoo would be the four or five gardens in the general area with small patches of wind stunted trees and bushes serving as windbreaks. The cuckoo was presumably commuting between these. 

We met Brian Rabbitts an English birder who has retired to North Uist and he told us the cuckoo had been seen about thirty minutes earlier and showed us the location which was about a quarter of a mile down the narrow road to Paible. By now other birders had arrived and between us we spread out to cover all the likely windbreaks in the gardens. We knew the cuckoo was here but finding it was entirely another matter as it apparently kept very low to the ground, where it could drop onto and seize caterpillars, its food of choice. The windbreaks by their very nature were dense and impossible to see into so we had little chance of discovering the cuckoo if it was in one of these, which it undoubtedly was. Our only chance would be when it came out and perched on the wires of the surrounding fences which it was fond of doing. So we waited, a few birders standing vigilant at each windbreak. An hour passed and then another. It was now 1pm. Doubt and anxiety increased as there was still no sighting of the cuckoo. I met Terry, a fellow Oxonbirder who was camping on North Uist for a week and we chatted about the cuckoo. Terry showed me where he had seen it in the garden by the main road a couple of days ago and I decided I would stake this spot out.

I sat on the grass by an iris bed and scanned the fenceline running up the side of the garden on the other side of the road but there was nothing to see apart from a very vocal Sedge Warbler. The sun shone and a strong but warm wind blew from the northeast. Terry left me and walked back the hundred metres to the road junction where he had left his car whilst I chatted to a couple of passers by, curious about what we were up to. In the bright dazzle of sunlight I could see the black silhouettes of birders scattered across the area, all of us waiting and hoping that something would happen and the cuckoo would appear to allay our increasing anxiety and fears of not seeing it. In situations like this the anxiety starts off as a ripple of ridiculous conversation and speculation. It is just a release of tension I know but inevitably as the time passes so the tension and anxiety increase. Yesterday there had been no reports of the cuckoo at all in the afternoon. We had been here two and a half hours now and still had nothing to show for it. I sat on the grass by the road in what, under normal circumstances, would be an enjoyable and pleasant experience but not now. The tiredness and weariness, as the adrenalin subsided, took over and I felt desperately disappointed at having come all this way, at considerable expense, only to fail because the cuckoo could not be found, yet knowing it was secreted somewhere close by. Such frustration. Such despair. I vowed, not for the first time, to give up twitching forever. 

I looked back along the road to see what other birders were doing and Terry waved to me from the road junction. I thought he was being friendly and casually waved back.  He waved again. Did I discern it was more frantically? Had someone found the cuckoo? I wasted no time and leapt into the hire car and drove the hundred metres or so to Terry. 

'What's up Terry?' I enquired.

'I don't know if it's anything but Brian Rabbitts has informed me that one of the locals just told him  he thought he had just seen the cuckoo in one of the windbreaks,  down there where the road to Paible bends round at the shore. I just looked down there myself and the birders there seemed very agitated about something'.  

I needed no more information. 

'Quick. Jump in the car Terry, we can drive down there as it will be quicker than walking.' 

Terry got in and we drove down the road. 

Just before the bend Terry exclaimed, 

'What's that flying? It's the cuckoo!' 

I stopped rapidly and there, flying across in front of us, was the cuckoo with irate Meadow Pipits and Starlings hot on its long tail.  It appeared as a brown and white bird, showing a thin, rakish profile with long pointed wings and a long tail.  With doors flung open we leapt from the car,  in our haste abandoning it at an angle across the verge. Mercifully there were no cars and hardly anyone about, apart from birders, on this particular road. We watched the cuckoo in our bins, determined to not lose sight of it as it headed away and adjacent to the road we had just come down, only to pitch into a small hedgerow of bushes forming the boundary to a back garden of a house by the road. I ran up the road with Terry, all concerns about the vehicle forgotten. Another birder, unaware of the situation was casually coming down the road towards me. I pointed excitedly. 

'The cuckoo! It's there in that hedge, somewhere'. 

We looked and then in a never to be forgotten moment the cuckoo flew up onto the wires of the fence and there it was in all its glory. 

The word spread like wildfire as other birders keeping an eye on each other, saw what was happening and knew something was up. There were about twenty of us in all, with plenty of space to stand on the road or verge, so there was no problem in viewing the cuckoo. The cuckoo showed little concern about the gaggle  of excited birders on the road and flew in short flights along the fence line, using the wires as a vantage point to scan the ground below and drop down to seize the occasional bright green caterpillar in the grass. It disappeared into the base of the bushes and could be seen hopping about on the ground but was soon out again and back on the wires. It was then possible to study its profile and plumage. The surge of emotion from the extreme of despair to one of elation is an experience to be savoured but, endeavouring to calm myself, I got some fantastic photos and also got the chance to study this fabled bird in detail. 

It was relatively small and slim unlike 'our' cuckoo, with a largish black bill for its size, the culmen markedly curved. A long tail with white tips accentuated its slim, elegant profile. Above it was medium brown in colour, the brown suffused in the sunlight with a burnished greenish gold gloss. Below it was white with a slightly buff throat. Around its eye was a ring of crimson and also a triangular patch of similar coloured  bare skin behind the eye. This made it an adult and even better, it was in full breeding plumage, never before seen in the Britain. 

Terry, bless his heart, said that as he had seen the cuckoo a few days earlier he would go back to rescue the abandoned car and then drove the car back up to the road junction and parked it safely. On his return we watched eagerly as the cuckoo gradually moved along the fence line, the buffeting wind catching the long tail feathers and swinging them about. It must have remained here for fifteen minutes at least, slowly moving its head around in true cuckoo fashion to survey the ground below, before it flew up and away across an adjacent field to a similar fence running beside the main road and opposite its favoured garden. We followed, people clapping each other on the back, excited, elated and all of us instantly the best of friends.

We re-assembled on the verge of the main road and watched the cuckoo sitting on the nearby fence sheltered from the wind by a grass bank and catching the occasional caterpillar. This particular individual seemed in robust health, no doubt aided by the plentiful supply of caterpillars available at this time of year, so perhaps this bird will prove to be truly exceptional, as not only being the first to be seen in Britain in Spring but also the first to survive for more than two days. I do hope so.

The cuckoo is just visible beside the fifth fence post from the left
The cuckoo was just below the sign, sitting on the fence to the left

The small crowd of birders soon attracted the attention of other passing tourists and we happily explained to them the reason for all the excitement. The cars on the road were, as per usual, minimal so there was no real conflict there either and the time passed amicably as we watched the cuckoo sitting in the sun totally unaware of its celebrity. Two of my birding colleagues took the car to go and see Corncrakes at the nearby Balranald Reserve but I wanted to remain with the cuckoo. Corncrakes could be easily seen in future times but to see another Black billed Cuckoo was very, very unlikely.

Some of my fellow twitchers


  1. Hello - thank you for your account of your visit to North Uist - Glad to have welcomed you and the cuckoo to my garden fence and passing place - the cuckoo is still here - happy and healthy - still feeding on the caterpillars - 7 days after it arrived- it is venturing a little wider each day but still remains in same location - we are thinking of giving it a name and hope it remains here a while yet.

  2. Hello - thank you for your account of your visit to North Uist - Glad to have welcomed you and the cuckoo to my garden fence and passing place - the cuckoo is still here - happy and healthy - still feeding on the caterpillars - 7 days after it arrived- it is venturing a little wider each day but still remains in same location - we are thinking of giving it a name and hope it remains here a while yet.