Sunday, May 27, 2012

Yellow-Billed Cuckoo, Minnesota-Style

I’ve seen a few cuckoos in my time. (What do they say: Takes one to know one?) The sightings have been so infrequent, however, that for the most part, I remember exactly where I saw each one.

• In the willows on the south side of the Luce Line, west of County 19.

• In the willows on the bank between the railroad tracks and the Mississippi at Reed’s Landing.

• On a branch above the little pond near the lower gate in Eloise Butler Wildflower Sanctuary.

• In a slough on the NW corner of Blueberry Lake in Webster County, Wisconsin.

• In a slough on the St. Croix near Oseola, Wisconsin, while canoeing with our nieces Liza and Sarah.

• In the underbrush by the Root River southwest of the open fields at Forestville State Park.

All of these were black-billed cuckoos, and all were perched.

Then, last spring, on the Natchez Trace, a few miles south of Jackson, Mississippi, I saw a yellow-billed cuckoo high up in a tree. I could clearly see its pearly-white breast and the double-row of white lozenge-shaped circles on its very long tail. “Oh, they have those birds down here!” I said to myself, a little joyously, presuming we’d see quite a few more in the course of our visit. But that was the only one we saw.

The cuckoo is a beautiful and exotic bird, and when I look off into swampy willows I often say to myself, “There could be a cuckoo down there,” fully aware that if there is, I probably won’t see the secretive creature.

But this morning, Hilary and I were birding with her folks at a county park on the Cannon River south of Miesville. It was mid-morning, the temperature was rising fast, but there was bird song everywhere.

A rowdy bunch was just putting their tubes into the river at the end of the road, a little ways downstream.

“Care to join us?” they shouted, with devil-may-care insouciance.

“Next time,” I shouted back.

Goldfinches and yellow warblers were zipping here and there, a red-bellied woodpecker was shrieking from the top of a dead tree. We picked up an indigo bunting, three rose-breasted grosbeaks in a merry group, phoebes, a red-eyed vireo. Then I saw something—a lithe, mid-sized bird—fly across the river. At first I thought it might have been a kestrel, though it wasn’t that bulky or determined in its flight. All at once it occurred to me—the thin frame, the very long tail—“That was a cuckoo.”

I had never seen a cuckoo in flight before. Wasn’t at all sure. It almost might have been a bird from the tropics, or an imaginary one from Green Mansions. It vanished into the foliage, but a minute later we heard its weird song again. It sounded to me like someone knocking two hollow coconuts together.

“I’m going to track him down,” I said.

“I think I saw him fly into those trees over there,” Hilary’s mother, Dorothy, said, pointing to a stand of mid-sized walnut trees at the edge of the forest.

I took a few steps forward across the grass, turned my attention in that direction, and began to scour the trees, slowly, branch by branch.

Then I saw it. Plain as day. White breast, yellow bill, huge eye. A very good sighting, side-on, unobstructed. Suddenly, as I watched, a second cuckoo appeared within my binoculars’ field of view and landed on top of the first one.

“I found them. Here they are. They’re mating!” I exclaimed. “See those two trees on the far side of the path. Bring your binoculars up through the foliage about 30 feet directly between them.”

Soon everyone had the bird in their field of view. Just then the second bird reappeared, landed on the back of the first once again, and fed it something. Then vanished once more. Wow!

We watched the first bird for a while, it occasionally flipped its tail upward almost to vertical. And I noted that though the bottom bill was bright yellow, the top bill was black. These are the kinds of details you look for, when you’re really not sure what you’re looking at.

But you also can’t help noticing how damned beautiful the thing is. One might almost say “demure.” A bird said to nest in Minnesota as far north as Mille Lacs, though you’ve never seen it before—at least not north of Jackson, Mississippi.

In the course of the day we saw thirty-seven bird species, ate lunch at The Tavern in Northfield (I had the duck), visited the huge Cambodian temple outside Hampton, and watched for half an hour as the Hampton Cardinals, already trailing 10-2, attempted to get a third out off the Miesville Mudhens. (Only later did I learn that the big draw of the day was that Hampton’s Joe Robinson—whoever that is—was letting people admire the new bling rims on his “pick-em-up” truck.)

But the sighting of the yellow-billed cuckoo—that made the day.

It might have made the summer.

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