A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

Monday, 6 June 2016

Black-billed Cuckoo on North Uist - MEGA!!!!

Come the evening of Sunday 22nd May I don’t know what blew my mind more – the fact that the Birdguides app mega alert sound was in fact the call of a Black-billed Cuckoo (check out Xeno Canto for those that don’t know!) or the fact that there was an actual Black-billed Cuckoo sat on a fence in far-away North Uist, happily feeding on caterpillars and being twitched by a handful of very lucky birders! The photographs that soon surfaced showing a fine, healthy, pristine spring adult gobbling juicy green caterpillars were even more mind blowing.
Black-billed Cuckoo - North Uist
The Uist Black-billed Cuckoo - an absolutely crazy record!
Before now, all previous records of Black-billed Cuckoo in Britain have been of autumn juveniles, each having the same sad glimmer of despair in the eyes and resigned to the inevitable fate that was waiting for them here on this side of the Atlantic – none have lasted longer than 3 days, with American cuckoos being notorious for perishing after making the crossing. Turning up in Britain it seems results in certain death as far as Coccyzus cuckoos are concerned.

With news breaking late on the Sunday night, the chances of it sticking until the following weekend, especially going on the past unfortunate history of this species, may have at first glance appeared extremely slim and approaching zero. This bird however was unchartered territory – never before had a spring individual made it across to these shores, and certainly not a healthy adult. Could it do the unthinkable and stick around for a whole week? Surely not….

As the days slowly ticked by the news remained positive - each day boat and plane loads of birders happily connected and reported the bird as still present and showing well. Plans started to form, and with confirmation that the cuckoo was still in its favoured gardens come Friday morning, I sprang into action and hastily booked us some accommodation for our trip. An overnight stop in Fort William would break up the daunting 9 hour drive after work, with the last 2 ¾ hours to our ferry at Uig on Skye undertaken the following morning. Seemingly simple?

Things started to unravel as we neared Glasgow. An ominous silence on the Cuckoo’s whereabouts since near midday was broken by negative news late on in the evening – the bird hadn’t been seen all afternoon and was last reported as “disappearing over the top of a hill”. This was not good. As another birder had put it, a bird seemingly ‘doing one’ over the top of a hill has never resulted in anything positive when twitching is concerned! Never the less, we ploughed on to Fort William, dodging deer on the way and feeling somewhat disheartened at the fact we were seemingly driving towards a dip.
Birdguides report
The heart-stopping Birdguides report whilst driving up through Glasgow! 
After a much needed night’s sleep in the Travelodge I came out of the shower to be met with the welcome news that the cuckoo was back in the gardens…. twitch on! It transpired that the previous report had been slightly lost in translation, as the bird had simply dropped down in to vegetation between the two houses on the slope and had disappeared from view – not flying away over a hill as we had all feared!
Fort William
Fort William
Luckily, we decided to leave the Travelodge that morning with the aim of getting to the ferry terminal at Uig in good time – 2 hours early to be precise. This proved to be one of the best decisions we’d ever made, as arriving at Mallaig ferry terminal after an hour’s drive, the devastating reality dawned on us – the sat-nav had planned the route to Skye via a small island ferry crossing at Mallaig instead of over the bridge at the Kyle of Lochalsh. This was a disaster, and I’ve never felt more crushed on a twitch (not even the time when we actually dipped the Yellow-billed Cuckoo in Cornwall after a 7 hour drive through the night). With the next Mallaig ferry not until after 11am and only being offered a standby place, we were well and truly stuck. We were now over an hour away from where we had started off this morning at Fort William, with a further 2 ¾ hours on top of that, and time was fast slipping away. After coming all this way it seemed we had fallen at the final hurdle – we simply weren’t going to make it.

With no guaranteed place on the crossing we made the decision to try and get to Uig – last boarding was at 1:30pm and our sat navs arrival time predicted 1:52pm – a huge feat to try and make up half an hour on the winding mountain roads complete with their caravan induced tailbacks. With Alex driving like an absolute hero and watching our arrival time get steadily shorter, as I eyed the sat-nav dial move down to 1:37pm I started to think we might be in with a chance…..

Remarkably, we eventually made it to Uig at 1:24pm, although no ferry in sight as we were driving down the hill towards the pier convinced me we had somehow come to the wrong port in the absolute cruellest twist of fate – had we messed up again?! We were relieved therefore to pull in to the terminal and be met with a jumble of birders, scopes and tripods. Relief took over – we had somehow made it!

In a sheer stroke of luck, the ferry had been delayed from its departure on Uist and wasn’t due in until quarter to 2, allowing us plenty of time to purchase our tickets, park, unload the car and somehow be one of the first ones on board!
Calmac Ferry - Uig to Lochmaddy
Enjoying the ferry crossing, we were finally able to relax and take in the beautiful scenery and wildlife that Scotland has to offer. A pair of Golden Eagles drifted distantly over the hillside, while a White-tailed Eagle eyrie on the distant Skye cliffs was just about visible through binoculars. Several Black Guillemots – one of my favourite birds – joined the other auks during the crossing, while the occasional summer plumaged Great Northern Divers showed off their spectacular black and white patterns. Two Arctic Skuas bombed past the side of the boat, while both Harbour Porpoises and a distant pod of Bottlenose Dolphins kept us entertained as they took advantage of the rich pickings the Scottish seas produce food wise.  
Lochmaddy - North Uist
Lochmaddy - North Uist
With Dan Pointon getting word that the cuckoo was still present during the 2 hour journey across, once we had docked into Lochmaddy there was a mad scramble to pick up hire cars. With the ferry fully booked for cars on the Saturday sailings seemingly weeks in advance, the majority of birders (us included) were foot passengers, and we were thankfully offered a lift around the island by local Marbury birder Mal and his wife – life savers and we were eternally grateful!

15 minutes later we were on site and the search was on. The cuckoo had apparently disappeared an hour earlier in the gardens down the hill and had yet to be located, and as more and more birders arrived we spread out and covered the surrounding area. Having favoured the same couple of gardens since its arrival a week earlier, the cuckoo had recently become a lot more mobile over the last couple of days, ranging across Loch Sandary in to a number of gardens. With absolutely glorious weather on Uist I was soon regretting wearing my woolly walking boots and thick coat as the sun beat down – for an island up on the northern edges of Britain it was surprisingly warm!

As the time passed there was still a sense of optimism that the cuckoo would be found – it was undoubtedly still in the area and with around 40 or so birders looking it was only a matter of time before someone located it. Serenaded by a soundtrack of the rasping notes of Corncrakes hiding deep in the Irises and with several Common Cuckoos calling and making occasional flights harassed by a mob of Meadow Pipits, after around an hours searching, Alex suddenly pointed ahead of us – “Look, what’s that flying towards us?!”.

It was of course, the cuckoo - flying straight ahead of us and attempting to land on the roof of a nearby house before doubling back and diving straight in to a thick patch of scrub. Familiar with Coccyzus cuckoos in flight after seeing Yellow-billed in America, we knew instantly that we had our prize.   
Black-billed Cuckoo - North Uist
Black-billed Cuckoo - North Uist
Black-billed Cuckoo - North Uist
Immediately getting the attention of the birders nearby and shouting over that we had it, word soon spread, and before long a steady stream of birders could be seen sprinting up the track, hoping to get a glimpse of this most magical of birds.
     
Black-billed Cuckoo twitch - North Uist
Happy twitchers!
Showing well for the next 45 minutes or so, everyone present was able to enjoy fantastic views of this almost mythical American vagrant as it flitted between the houses and patches of vegetation in the immediate area, perching obligingly at the top of bushes and fence posts and allowing us all to get stunning views of that deep dark curved bill and striking crimson eye ring.    
Black-billed Cuckoo - North Uist
Black-billed Cuckoo - North Uist
Black-billed Cuckoo - North Uist
Black-billed Cuckoo - North Uist
Relatively mobile and constantly being harassed by a pair of Meadow Pipits, the cuckoo eventually dropped down in to a large bush and out of sight. It was easy to see how the bird could get lost in this remote habitat for long periods of time, and without large numbers of birders searching the area it could easily go undetected.  
Bayhead - North Uist
The gardens the cuckoo was favouring
Bayhead - North Uist
With the cuckoo off show and with everyone ecstatic about connecting with this truly monstrous bird (some birders even cracked open bottles of Malt Whisky on site to celebrate) we headed back to our accommodation for the evening, taking in the beautiful surroundings that North Uist has to offer and elated that we had managed to pull off what was a truly epic twitch. 
Lochmaddy - North Uist
Lochmaddy - North Uist
Lochmaddy - North Uist
The view from our accommodation - gorgeous!
With just 15 records in the UK to date, Black-billed Cuckoo is one of those birds that has a near mythical status on British birders lists. With the fact that individuals rarely last more than a day and with no records in the last 25 years bar an individual seen briefly by a handful of people on Orkney back in 2014, this was a species that no one expected to get on their lists any time soon – and most certainly not this spring! Long gone are the heydays of the 80’s (when remarkably four in one year were recorded in 1982) and coupled with an apparent decline of this species in their natural range in America, the prospects of Black-billed Cuckoo occurring in Britain, let alone being twitchable, looked increasingly bleak.

The eventual stay of 10 days by the North Uist Black-billed Cuckoo before its apparent departure on the following Wednesday also finally put to bed the rumours that have long been doing the rounds that British caterpillars are toxic to American cuckoos (and are the cause of death after they make it over here). Rather, it is far more likely that autumn juveniles just cannot cope with the Atlantic crossing (often in huge debilitating storms) and simply succumb to exhaustion or lack of food. The fact that the Uist bird was an adult,  as well as there perhaps being a greater abundance of caterpillars in the spring compared to the autumn may have set it apart from the rest and ensured its chance of survival.

Another mystery is when and exactly where the cuckoo arrived this side of the Atlantic. While it is possible that it made its way across this spring and made landfall straight on North Uist, there is an alternative scenario that it instead arrived on the back of the huge autumnal storms last October somewhere else in Europe or in Africa, before overwintering on the continent and making a parallel migration north once May approached. Regardless of its arrival, this was an absolutely phenomenal bird that I for one certainly didn’t expect to be seeing any time soon!
Lochmaddy - North Uist
Otter - North Uist
Seconds after I took the top photo, Alex spotted an Otter in the exact spot! The small brown squiggle under the gull may quite possibly be it!
Despite the huge distance up to Uist (Alex heroically did all the driving single-handedly) I always find island twitches to be some of the most enjoyable. The incredibly scenery and wildlife in Scotland (I even saw my first wild Otter) is always a joy to behold, and we both had a fantastic and enjoyable weekend twitching a bird that is sure to live on in the memory for years to come. As they say – he who dares, wins – and we most certainly did on this occasion.
Black-billed Cuckoo - North Uist

Alex's video of the Black-billed Cuckoo in all it's glory!

Lochmaddy - North Uist

4 comments:

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  2. Love your recount of this amazing twitch & the photos too. :)

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