My Witt's End

The Thrill of the Chase

Originally posted 1 October 2012

 A Common Cuckoo

It’s common knowledge in the birding world, when a bird’s first name is “Common,” it’s likely not to be so. As luck would have it, last week Susan and I happened to be spending some time in the Monterey Bay area during our extended California Adventure. As a subscriber to eBird’s critically important rare bird alert program, I could not believe our good fortune when I read, September 28, of the spotting of truly rare bird.

A Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus, first year female) was found at the Watsonville Slough, in Santa Cruz, 25 miles from where we were. The bird is common in Europe and Asia, however, in the U.S. it’s a different story; an uncommon tale to be sure. Our plans for heading south toward Morro Bay made a quick 180—north to Santa Cruz, much to the objections of the lady in the GPS box.

Early Saturday morning we drove to the spot where the bird was reported the day before. As any bird-chaser will tell you, when you arrive at the spot and lots of other people are standing around, hands in pockets, looking in all directions, it’s not a good sign. Susan jumped from the car and chatted up the first person she came to. He turned out to be friendly and knowledgeable. As he dashed for his car, he said the bird had just been spotted “across the bridge.” He recognized the blank looks we gave him and said, “follow me.”

Music to our ears. Susan spun the rental car around so fast the GPS lady was shouting, “What? What? I’m just askin’ here!”

About a half mile away we joined more than 100 other birders, a flowing stream of humanity, like lemmings (to mix a metaphor) toward a weedy edge of a not-so-friendly looking estuary. Fog shrouded the area. In hushed tones (birders often do this when a rarity is around), the question and answer game began: “Seen it? Anybody have it? Where is it?”

After 15 minutes or so, the star arrived. Full disclosure here: I missed the entrance, Susan did not. The bird popped up and down so quickly, I was still trying to sort out which brown tree with the green leaves, etc.; following the directions of a dozen people and getting so frustrated I almost peed my pants. The bird was gone before I was even facing the right direction.

While gnashing my teeth, way overheated, I unwound myself from my camera straps, binoculars, backpack, et al, and dropped it all on the ground to get out of my sweater. On queue, the bird popped up again. Susan had worked her way to the front of the crowd and was one of the first to see it and, I think, the first to get a scope on the bird, much to the delight of many people around her. The chatter of camera motor drives drowned out directions people were giving, however, this time I got great looks.

This would prove to be the first California record for the species and, according to one knowledgeable birder standing next to me, possibly only the second sighting in the U.S., the first being some years ago in Massachusetts.

She (the Common Cuckoo) decided to cooperate and give us adoring fans a treat. She perched in a relatively open spot (albeit 150 feet away) and posed for about 10 minutes, then flew off to the sound of hundreds of people all releasing their breath at the same time.

What a bird. Okay, not glamorous by some standards, but hey, beauty is only feather deep—and those feathers will change soon enough. In classic birder tradition, when the bird pooped the crowd said, “Aaaaaa.” And with that, Cuculus canorus took off to the left, heading for a spot with a bit more privacy.

High fives all ‘round. One of the local birders had a shopping bag full of bagels he distributed, the sun made a cameo appearance. Life is good.


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