Sunday, July 1, 2012

Breeding Black-billed Cuckoos in coastal Carolina

Black-billed Cuckoos are tough to see anywhere.  Even in the mountains of North Carolina, where they breed, there is no reliable method for tracking them down.  They vocalize sporadically and spend most of their time perched in dense vegetation scanning their surroundings for caterpillars or large insects.

Until a few days ago Black-billed Cuckoos were known only as rare migrants in the eastern part of the state, with the most recent breeding record a specimen collected from Bertie County in May, 1896.  Observations made by John Fussell (who wrote the book on birding coastal NC) of birds singing in the Croatan National Forest and in nearby North River Farm seemed to suggest the potential for breeding, but this needed to be confirmed.

And since I also needed this bird for my life list (I had heard one in Vermont five years ago during a softball game), I woke up early and went out with Fussell himself on June 28 to Catfish Lake Road in the Croatan to some spots where he had heard cuckoos coo-coo-coo-ing 10 days prior.
Black-billed Cuckoo habitat? - Catfish Lake rd., Croatan National Forest
At first we heard no cuckoos of any kind.  John said that when he has heard Black-billed Cuckoos singing in June, they usually stop by the beginning of July.  And after a fruitless three hours, I was ready to accept the null hypothesis: that these cuckoos were just late migrants.  After all Black-billed Cuckoos are weird birds that often defy conventional bird wisdom: they shed their stomach linings to expel caterpillar spines; their young leave the nest faster than any other bird (17 days from egg lay to fledge); and they are just so cryptic and elusive.  Perhaps they could migrate through coastal areas on occasion in late June with the intent to breed later in July at some caterpillar hotspot somewhere else?

But we finally heard a cuckoo sound...(turn your volume way up)

We heard this call regularly for the better part of an hour, but couldn't coax a bird into view.  And the source of the sound didn't seem to be moving at all.  Perhaps it was sitting on a nest?

We moved in closer, pinpointing a dense vine-tangled bush. Then John finally spotted a cuckoo, but it looked pretty dingy... a fledgling!  Then an adult popped out of nowhere to feed it.  Wow!

I filmed the ensuing scramble made by the youngster as it tried to hide itself...

If you don't like videos, here are a few stills I extracted...
Fledling Black-billed Cuckoo
showing the short tail while scrambling away
This was the last we saw of the fledgling.  At one point we heard a fledgling call from another bush 20 feet away, so we suspect there were at least two young. As we worked our way out we saw one adult pop up out of a ditch and cross the road. And then we flushed a second out of some rank vegetation.
This one was incredibly cooperative, sitting up on exposed twigs in the power line cut.  We even had time to get scopes on it!

From the road we saw one of the adults working the edge of the powerline cut and then disappearing into the bushes to feed its brood.

What a successful and "historic" morning!  The handful of Swainson's Warblers we heard singing seem hardly worth mentioning.

This is my second significant encounter with a bird that begins with "Black-b." this year (the first).  So I've got high hopes for stumbling upon a Black-bellied Whistling Duck or Black-bellied Storm-Petrel in North Carolina sometime in the next 6 months!


  1. Woah dang that's awesome! You must truly be in communion with nature to have such a ethereal experience like that. once again I find myself inspired with envy of your North Carolina birding...

    Great stuff, thanks for posting.

  2. Thanks Laurence!
    The secret is to go bird with John Fussell and exciting birds are bound to appear.