Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

A Cuckoo Evening on Plum Island
June 14, 2014
By Steve Grinley

     I decided to head to Plum Island after work one evening this week. The day was cloudy, but there was no rain, and I felt like getting out into the fresh air for a while. When I left the store, however, a cold, northeast wind had come up, dropping the temperature into the fifties, and I had second thoughts. But I remembered that I had my heavier coat in the car, so I headed out anyway.

     As I drove down the island, the wind was keeping most of the birds down, except for the kingbirds that were dominating their respective areas. There were a few ducks and geese in the pans along the marsh side, and willets were calling to one another as they always do. Except for an occasional egret, not much more was happening, and I wondered if it would be worth it to venture much further. I chose to stay the course and to head for Hellcat.

     I pulled into the Hellcat Trail parking lot, donned my warmer coat, grabbed my scope from the back of the car and headed up the dike. I was greeted by a catbird hopping along the ground. As I walked up the dike, I did see one birder at the south end, scoping the marsh. I guessed that he was searching for the recently reported night herons that leave their Hellcat roost in the evening to go “night fishing.” I scanned in that direction, but saw nothing.

     I turned to the north to scope the Bill Forward Pool. There were a number of ducks, mostly gadwall, but it was nice to see one male blue-winged teal and a pair of green-winged teal among them. There were very few shorebirds, mostly a few dozen semipalmated sandpipers, a few semipalmated plovers and a half dozen black-bellied plovers, the latter dressed in their handsome breeding plumage. The ospreys were far off near their nesting platform, but there was little else around. It was as uneventful as I had expected.

     But birding isn’t always what you expect. As I was driving back up the island, a bird came up from the field north of Hellcat and crossed the road ahead of me, landing in a tree on the right. The bird was long and slender with a long tail. Cuckoo, I thought? I immediately slowed to a crawl, although I wasn’t really traveling much faster than that. I then spotted the bird in a tree right next to the road and I stopped. Sure enough, it was a cuckoo! 

     I crept up slowly to get a better look and, with my binoculars, I could see very few spots on the long tail, no rust in the wings, and a dark bill. It was a black-billed cuckoo. I couldn’t really make out much of a red eye-ring, another black-billed characteristic, but I would soon learn that this was a female, with less prominent eye-ring. I sat and watched the cuckoo for some time and it started to do something I had never seen a cuckoo do before. 

     The cuckoo sat with its wings back and down away from its body. It then started raising its tail slowly, almost to an angle that you would see a wren cock its tail, and then drop it, much like I have seen a hermit thrush do so many times. It repeated this motion a number of times and I was fascinated by it.

     Well, I guess I wasn’t the only one fascinated by it. I then saw another bird appear in the same tree, just above the cuckoo. It was another cuckoo, presumably a male! It dropped down next to the female cuckoo with a very large caterpillar in its bill. It then fed the caterpillar to the female, but then, almost simultaneously, jumped on her back and they began copulating. Both had each end of the caterpillar secure in their bills as this went on for a number of seconds!

     When the male finally dismounted, he also let go of the caterpillar and the female continued to chomp down on it, enjoying the “after-treat”, as the male slipped away into the brush. After she finished the delectable bug, she just sat, as if satisfied in both regards. After a short minute, she too moved further in to the leaves and, as I drove slowly by and peered into where they had been, I could see the two fly off together further into the wooded area.

     It was a pleasant end to the evening for the cuckoos, and an eventful way to end an evening of birding for me.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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