WFO 2012: A Cuckoo Chase Reconsidered

7:30AM Sunday 30 September

I give Shawneen a nudge to wake her up. "We need to get up and get going." She smiles as she recognizes the look in my eye. "I wondered when you were going to change your mind." 

I had gone to bed thinking that today would be relaxed in pace and that we would sleep in and then start making our way north for Humboldt County and then home. As the sun rose, I woke up to the realization that I had no idea when I might next be within two hours of a Common Cuckoo. I would be a fool to pass up this opportunity. I could envision reading about the continuing presence of this bird for weeks and kicking myself for not going to see it when I was nearby. We quickly packed, grabbed some breakfast, bid our gracious host Betsy and her wonderful dog "Pepper" goodbye, and we were on our way. 

As we wound our way through San Francisco and the south Bay Area, Shawneen pointed out the landmarks of her youth. Driving through open country along I-280 near Palo Alto, she showed me where she used to ride her horse. It was exciting for her to be able to share her home turf with me. It was clear that in her heart, this still remains "home."

It was after 10:30AM by the time we reached Watsonville Slough and found the park and slough-side trail where the cuckoo was being seen. The area was teeming with hopeful and already satisfied cuckoo chasers, but no one had seen the bird in nearly an hour. We encountered several familiar faces.  It was starting to get hot, thus we quickly grew concerned that the heat might cause the cuckoo to find a cool spot and sit tight. Over the next two and a half hours we worked up and down the path and scoped the slough in the increasingly baking heat. We racked up an impressive list of birds that included vagrant Blackpoll and Chestnut-sided Warblers, but no cuckoo. 

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Here's a satellite view of the section of Watsonville Slough where the Common Cuckoo was seen in late September and early October of 2012. We ultimately saw the bird in the little row of tree just to the left of the curve in Ford St. at the bottom of the photo. Earlier in the day the bird had been seen in Ramsey Park and then along the footpath south of Harkins Slough Rd. (image sourced online at www.maps.google.com)

By 1PM the temperature was nearing 90F, so we headed back to the car to shed some layers and change into shorts. As we altered our attire another group hurriedly approached the parking area and started loading into the car next to us. Thankfully, they mentioned that the cuckoo had just been seen off of Ford St. on the far side of the slough, near where it discovered two days earlier. We pulled up our GPS, figured out where to go, and made the short drive to where the bird had just been relocated.

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Initially, the Common Cuckoo was obscured in the dense crown of the willows. This image was taken along the south side of Watsonville Slough on 30 September 2012. (Photo by Dave Irons). 

We parked, grabbed cameras and a scope, and hastily made our way down a trail along the side of the slough. A gathering of 15 other birders had just seen the cuckoo, but lost track of it when it flew up into the trees. Earlier in the day Sophie Webb had casually mentioned watching a flock of bushtits scolding the cuckoo. I recalled this as I heard a flock of scolding bushtits about 30' overhead. I located the source of the commotion and infused the group with joy when I readily refound the cuckoo quietly sitting near the crown of willow tree amid the scolding mob. We put the bird in Shawneen's scope.  Over the next 15 minutes at least three dozen birders took turns at the scope. I took a couple passable photos, but the bird was really buried in foliage. 

Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. After several minutes of helping others get on the bird, I moved over to a position slightly to the left of the main group, where I kneeled down in hopes of getting a better photo angle. Then came a gift from the birding gods. The cuckoo fluttered down out of the treetops and landed on an exposed branch in small open area about 40 feet away. I was low enough that I had the only clear view of the bird, while those standing to the right and behind us had lots of branches and low hanging foliage partially blocking their sight lines to the bird. Knowing that good rumps shots were needed to confirm that this wasn't an Oriental Cuckoo, I snapped off several quick photos. The cuckoo sat on this perch with its back towards us for about a minute before flying back into the dense vegetation behind the small opening. 

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This dorsal shot shows the mostly unbarred rump that helps separate Common Cuckoo from the very similar Oriental Cuckoo. The white patch on the nape (tough to see in this image) helps age it as a hatch-year bird. This photo was taken on 30 September 2012. (Photo by Dave Irons). 

Marc Fenner had fortuitously squatted down right next to me, so I briefly leaned out of the way, enabling to get some good photos of his own. He was most appreciative. I was happy to share my good fortune with an old friend. Marc spent about three years living in Portland, Oregon back in the early 1980's and we occasionally birded together in those days. Neither Shawneen, who often birded with Marc after he returned to California in the mid-1980s, nor I had seen him in many years. So it was fun to combine a reunion with the joy of sharing this amazingly rare bird. 

Satisfied that we'd gotten the best looks at the cuckoo that we were likely to get, and still facing a 6-7 hour drive back to Arcata, where we would spend the night, we decided to start north. Shawneen gave me a welcome break from behind the wheel, driving most of the way north to Arcata. We arrived at Jude Power's home (Jude was still in the Bay Area visiting family), where we were welcomed with a hot meal served up by our dear friend David Fix. Tired, but joyous, we spent the remainder of the evening sharing tales of our trip. 

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