Birding Saved My Lockdown Sanity, But I Still Went Cuckoo

My daily walks for the last couple of months have consisted of visits to county parks, greenways, and nature preserves. It has been a good spring for migrants with all the cool weather. Winds with northerly components provide a headwind for northbound migrants, effectively slowing migration, causing the birds to linger instead of hurrying through. One species that I consider rare in Mecklenburg County is the black-billed cuckoo. During any given year only a couple of reports may be posted. I had not seen one in Mecklenburg for 4 years. In the last three weeks however, five reports of this species have been posted and confirmed with photos.


Black-billed Cuckoo
Photo by John Ennis
I really wanted to see one this year so I chased every report. I just missed a Latta Park bird. A Ribbonwalk Nature Preserve bird was present in the morning but disappeared by afternoon. While I was successfully chasing an Alder flycatcher at McDowell Nature Preserve, other birders were enjoying a black-billed cuckoo less than a mile away. It was joined by another bird a day later and I again missed both. I feared the migration window for that bird had closed by last Friday another report came in from McAlpine Creek Park. I jumped in my car and was there in 15 minutes, only to be greeted by a group of birders who uttered the dreaded line "You just missed it. It was just here". I gave it a few minutes but couldn't stay long. I was almost back to the parking lot when the phone rang. The bird had re-appeared. I turned on a dime, headed back to the spot, and was rewarded with great looks at a great bird.
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Photo by Jeff Lewis
There are two species of cuckoos that move through our area. Yellow-billed cuckoos are fairly common breeders but are secretive. Black-billed cuckoos are only pass-thru migrants. Both species are large, slender birds that move clumsily through canopy foliage. They are prone to sitting still for long periods of time therefore making them hard to spot. Yellow-billed cuckoos have a distinctive call that even gets the attention of non-birders. The black-billed' s call is like the old-fashioned coo-coo clock sound but is rarely heard in our area. Aside from the bill colors, there are some other subtle differences between the species, but a good look is usually required to make a firm ID.
I guess with all the sightings of black-billed cuckoos this spring the odds finally favored a successful chase. Birders know how to swing the odds though; chase every bird and sooner of later you will be rewarded.