|Black-billed Cuckoo by Dean Eades.
The drama started way back on the early evening of the 22nd May. As I was cleaning myself up after a hard day grafting in the garden, I heard my pager wailing away from the dining room. Usually, that distinctive siren sound induces a mild sense of panic. It is usual for me to make a mad dash for that flashing piece of retro electrical hardware, eager to discover what mega rarity some lucky 'agent in the field' had located.
On this occasion however I just continued scrubbing away at my finger nails, donned my Marigold rubber gloves and rinsed out the sink. The reason for the apathy was that over the previous few weeks, the rare bird information services had been suffering from some kind of nervous breakdown resulting in a worrying case of premature 'rarity alert' ejaculation. If it wasn't a message in respect of a goldfish gobbling pelican from some dodgy French circus, it was the unreliable, second hand news of some wide ranging, hand-reared vulture. In my opinion they had been crying wolf much too often recently. To be honest this wasn't even a proper wolf, with a nasty nip, a ferocious snarl and an instinct to bone your leg. Oh no, this wolf was more like the aging, stringy-haired, spray-tanned simpleton who once minced around on 'Gladiators' during the 1990's.
Eventually I picked up the pager and took a quick peek. Ha, just as I had suspected, an alleged report of a Black-billed Cuckoo on the Western Isles. Yeah right. What would one of those be doing on this side of the Atlantic Ocean at this time of the year? This is a species that very, very, very occasionally lurks in bare autumnal brambles hungrily digesting its own internal organs in some remote south western outpost of Britain. Even its bill superficially resembles the razor sharp, soul harvesting scythe of doom, wielded by the grim reaper himself. It is a species that epitomizes the terrible fate that most transatlantic vagrants will eventually suffer.
I was just about to pick up my phone and cancel my pager subscription when I received a text from my pal Dave Hutton. Attached to that text was a photograph by his fellow bird photographing mate Dean Eades. It was a zoomed in head shot of a red-eyed, black-billed, mega rare American cuckoo. Dean had arrived on North Uist just the day before and was conveniently shacked up in a caravan just down the road from the bird at Bayhead. As that Sunday evening progressed, even more gripping photographs appeared on line. I was absolutely stunned.
|Black-billed Cuckoo on North Uist by Dean Eades.
Unusually for me I was unable to drop everything at work during the week and head north. I had way too much to do, plus my colleagues had already booked time off with the bank holiday weekend approaching. I simply needed to 'man up' and accept that if I was ever to see a Black-billed Cuckoo in Britain, it would be probably be one of those tragic, emaciated individuals on some wet September morning or windy October afternoon over on some gale battered Scillonian island.
As the week progressed however, and as the bird continued to show well on and off, I needed to put some kind of contingency plan in place. Muted discussions were held between other interested parties regarding the logistics. In the meantime, it seemed as though everyone else who needed this mighty blocker were successfully connecting, whether traveling by the traditional ferry route from Skye, an expensive scheduled flight from mainland Scotland or an outrageously over-priced charter flight from various locations in England.
By Thursday morning I was getting rather twitchy. The bird was still there and we now had to take the matter seriously. There was a slender chance that the cuckoo would still be present during the weekend, gliding around the Loch Sandary area, picking off the local caterpillar population as it flew from croft to croft. I prayed to the birding Gods, both the old and the new, to help keep the bird healthy and remain safe from harm. A team was gathered from all corners of the English Midlands, me representing Warwickshire, Jules Allen representing Staffordshire, Phil Andrews representing the West Midlands (and sometimes Worcestershire) and finally David Gray representing the king-stealing county of Leicestershire.
As is usual with such long distance twitches it was Phil 'the birding cyborg' Andrews who would take the wheel, based on the fact that the rest of us would probably be fast asleep by the time we reached Sandbach Services on the M6. It was therefore the least I could do in sorting out the accommodation for an overnight stay on the Saturday. On Friday morning the news that we were all hoping for eventually filtered through, the bird was still present.
At 1.00am on Saturday morning we all gathered at Jules's house in Walsall to embarked on the long, arduous drive to the Isle of Skye. It was a journey that Jules had already undertaken the week before after spending a fortnight touring both Speyside in the Highlands as well as the Uists themselves. Unluckily for him he had left North Uist just two days before the Black-billed Cuckoo had been found. His enthusiasm for a follow up trip was not diminished however, bearing in mind the magnitude of the rarity we had in our sights.
|The Commando Memorial with Ben Nevis in the distance.
As we passed the Erskine Bridge west of Glasgow it was now light enough for the bird to be relocated. We waited nervously with baited breath for positive news via Dean Eades who promised to be out looking as soon as he could bring himself out from beneath his snug duvet. We were also in contact with Dan Pointon and his posse who were also heading north for the same reason. Then came the message from Dan we were all dreading, there had been no sign of the cuckoo between 5.00am and 6.00am following a search by Paul Baker before he caught his ferry back to Skye.
There were no such messages of optimism from Dean to eliminate the pain either. By the time we reached Fort William the mood in the car was becoming extremely tense indeed. After filling up with fuel we decided to head to an aptly named Scottish sounding, fast food restaurant to help lift our spirits.
Whilst waiting in the queue for my McPlasticy egg muffin to be cooked, a scruffy looking fellow emerged from the gents toilets with a huge satisfied grin on his face. His distinctive swagger seemed to exude a certain degree of confidence. Never had a gentleman left a public convenience showing this level of euphoria with an accompanying 'lazy lob on' since George Michael did, shortly before his arrest in connection with a Beverly Hills based sexual indiscretion in 1998.
No, this is not what you are thinking folks. This individual was not in fact the infamous, unkempt 'Big Issue' selling lookalike of a twitcher known as LGRE but it was our very own long distance driver Phil Andrews. The reason for the glee smothered all over his face was not due to him having been lovingly brought off by in the toilet cubicle, oh no this was way better than that. He had received a message to say the Black-billed Cuckoo was still present. Needless to say we were all pretty ecstatic.
With the pressure now off slightly we all started to relax a little and enjoy the occasion. In hindsight this seemed a tad over exuberant bearing in mind we still had nearly nine hours to go until our arrival in Bayhead. We finally reached Kyle of Lochalsh and crossed the bridge over to the Isle of Skye at around 10.00am before making our way to Portree. Here we spent a while basking in the warm sunshine at the Eros Centre while a distant Golden Eagle soared, Raven wheeled over the hillsides and Siskin passed overhead.
We then made our way across to the port of Uig to pick up our ferry tickets and enjoy a spot of lunch in the bar. More top birds were enjoyed at this location with a pair each of both White-tailed Eagle and Golden Eagle along with the odd Common Buzzard. Out in the harbour, a number of Black Guillemot were present along with a Common Eider and a few Shag.
|Black Guillemot at Uig Harbour by Adam Archer.
Due to a technical issue in trying to squeeze a truck on board, our vessel left about fifteen minutes behind schedule. Fortunately though, good progress was made across the calm waters of The Minch and we arrived more or less on time. As a consequence of the fine weather there was not a great deal of birds to see during the crossing. Apart from several small groups of Guillemot, the only other highlights were the odd Puffin and Razorbill along with a few more Black Guillemot and the odd Fulmar and Gannet. Marine mammals made proceedings slightly more interesting with plenty of Harbour Porpoise, a small pod of Bottlenose Dolphin and the occasional Grey Seal.
We finally docked at Lochmaddy at around 4.00pm. It was then a nervy and frustrating twenty minutes or so before we were allowed to disembark the ferry and sort out our hire car. Typically we were the last party to receive our keys and whilst we were left standing around becoming increasingly stressed out, all other birders were already racing across to the western side of the island.
Eventually we arrived on site around Loch Sandary near Piable. Judging by the various small groups of birders scattered around, the bird was obviously not on show. There was only one thing for it, we had to relocate the rarity ourselves. With around thirty keen birders and over five hours of daylight remaining our chances seemed pretty good. We met up with Dean Eades who had actually been watching the bird around ninety minutes before we arrived. He helpfully pointed out the area to which it had flown towards. This then became the area most of us concentrated our search upon.
A further ninety minutes passed by and a touch of tiredness and despondency had begun to set in. Despite us all being pretty exhausted, we continued scanning the fence posts and various clumps of vegetation hoping the American vagrant would reappear. A couple of Common Cuckoo, our more familiar European version, were present and would momentarily cause a snatch of excitement as their distant silhouette propelled their way between the crofts surrounding the loch.
Suddenly, the purposeful gait of one lonely birder could be seen rapidly making his way across to another group of birders over in the distance. All of them were then seen to quicken their pace away from where we were searching. We instinctively began to follow in the same direction when one of the group came to an abrupt halt, turned around and started waving frantically towards us.
The chase was on and after what seemed like a lifetime and a near case of heart failure, we eventually arrived to where a small excitable group were assembled. The bird was apparently perched among a tiny clump of willows within a small garden but it was now unfortunately out of sight. A few of us hopped over a fence in order to gain an alternative perspective and quietly and carefully made our way around to the other side of the garden. Here we found Josh Jones pointing towards a pallid looking shape among the same patch of green willow. I lifted my bins with shaking hands and bang, there it was, my first ever sighting of a Black-billed Cuckoo anywhere on the planet.
|Black-billed Cuckoo on North Uist by Adam Archer.
|Black-billed Cuckoo by Steff Leese.
We had done it. After a painful week of forced patience, a five hundred mile drive and a two hour boat ride thrown in, we had finally achieved our target. We were a select band of lucky birders to have witnessed a once in a lifetime event, a Black-billed Cuckoo on completely the wrong continent during a beautiful British spring day in May. In birding terms it really doesn't get much better than this.
Between sightings of the bird there was much in the way of smiles, celebration and handshaking. A bunch of birders from the northwest even cracked open a bottle of single malt whiskey and whipped out five shot glasses to toast the occasion.
|Prime cuckoo habitat, Loch Sandary by Adam Archer.
As we walked back to the car we could now finally relax and soak up the atmosphere of these magical islands. The sights and sounds of a thousand breeding waders, Oystercatcher, Lapwing and Redshank could be savoured from every direction and the mellifluous song of the Skylark seemed to be on one continuous musical loop. If there is any such place as a British birding paradise, then this is it my friends.
Wearily, we then made our way south to Carinish to drop off our gear at the bed and breakfast. As we unpacked the car, the sounds of calling Twite could be heard and a Northern Wheatear popped up into view. After introducing ourselves to our friendly hosts we then sped off towards the Lochmaddy Hotel for a celebratory drink of our own and some much needed grub. The birding here though never stops as we ticked off both a handsome male Hen Harrier and several Short-eared Owl on our journey to and from the hotel.
Despite four grown, snoring men sharing a row of just two and a half beds we all slept remarkably well throughout the night. This in spite of me being touched in an inappropriate manner at one stage. Upon peering out of the bedroom window at dawn the first bird we encountered was a quartering Short-eared Owl followed by a single Twite feeding unconcerned on weed seeds just a few yards away. What a great start to the day.... the birds I mean, not the intimate grope.
We then made our way north to Balranald RSPB reserve where hopefully we would encounter a Corncrake or two. As we slowly made our way down the lane towards the visitor centre we promptly heard our first bird calling away close to the roadside. A stroll back and forth along the same lane produced at least another three individual males 'crex crexing' away from the safety of the lush vegetation. Unfortunately we failed to see any bird but that has to be expected at this stage in the season.
|Common Gull at Balranald RSPB by Adam Archer.
Other birding highlights included a single Whooper Swan and a couple of Wigeon as well as impressive numbers of 'common' breeding waders and their chicks. We were all in fits of laughter at one stage as a young Lapwing chick scarpered away from us across a furrowed field a little too fast, only to trip over and accomplish a triple somersault. I take great pleasure in watching human beings go a cropper, however this was million times better. I'm sure a couple of Rock Dove feeding nearby chortled to themselves too. A few graceful Arctic Tern were present feeding around the loch and displaying Dunlin and drumming Snipe were also a sight to savor.
Before heading back for breakfast we called in at Loch Sandary again to see if we could relocate the cuckoo. A few mates from the West Midlands were heading over on the morning ferry so we were keen to help out and put their minds at rest. Unfortunately we failed in our quest to relocate the rarity however two more calling Corncrake were heard and yet another Short-eared Owl passed through the area.
|Short-eared Owl on North Uist by Adam Archer.
Between Bayhead and Criminish we encountered several more Short-eared Owls along the roadside, no doubt hunting as often as they could in order to satisfy the requirements of their hungry chicks. Following a tremendous breakfast we bade farewell to our lovely hosts and made our way south across the tidal island of Grimsay and onto the isle of Benbecula. There were still a few more hours of top quality birding to enjoy.
|North Uist from the Benbecula causeway by Adam Archer.
The first port of call was a shallow loch where we hoped to locate one of the most stunning of all the world's shorebirds. Viewing from a safe and respectable distance at the roadside we were soon watching a sexy female Red-necked Phalarope. A few minutes later, this original bird was joined by two rival males who were obviously both keen to attract her eye.
Whilst admiring these beautiful birds Phil made his way further along the road where he managed to locate another three phalarope. What a result. In addition there were also two flamboyant looking male Ruff lekking away nearby as well as a winter-plumage Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit. Other species of note included a Red-breasted Merganser, a pair of Arctic Tern and a single Common Buzzard.
|Red-necked Phalarope on Benbecula by Adam Archer.
We then made a quick trip across to the aptly named Stinky Bay, a fantastic place to watch waders feeding along the beach at very close range. Here we found a sizable flock of Sanderling, many of which were in their smart summer attire. Among them were smaller numbers of Dunlin and a similar number of Turnstone. There were also a few Ringed Plover among the usual Oystercatcher and Redshank. Offshore there was a fine summer plumage Great Northern Diver along with a dozen Common Eider and a pair of Red-breasted Merganser.
|Stinky Bay, Benbecula by Adam Archer.
Unfortunately, with time running out we needed to make our way back northeast to Lochmaddy in time for the ferry ride back to Skye. Yet another pair of Golden Eagle were spotted distantly from the harbour along with a Common Buzzard and a few Raven. An Arctic Skua passed by heading inland and a Shelduck was belatedly added to the trip list. As the ferry pulled away from North Uist both Red-throated Diver and Black-throated Diver were spotted fishing in the bay and finally a White-tailed Eagle was perched up proudly on rocks as we sailed by. An impressive and fitting end to our short time spent on the spectacular Western Isles. The crossing itself was pretty uneventful birdwise, with the exception of a single Great Skua and a few Kittiwake and Fulmar.
Then came the difficult part, heading back south on a Sunday afternoon with the customary slow moving tourist coaches and violent rain showers hindering our progress. Not even a hour long traffic jam alongside the western shore of Loch Lomond could dampen our spirits though and why would it? Especially when a Wood Warbler or two can be heard singing as you sit in a stationary car with the windows rolled down and the sun shining.
We eventually arrived back at Jules's abode just 48 hours after we had originally set off. We had certainly packed in as many birds, as much drama and a fair few laughs during those epic two days. Here's to the next adventure. I can hardly wait.
Special thanks must go to Phil Andrews for single handedly driving us way in excess of one thousand miles without any assistance whatsoever. Thanks also go to the legend Dean Eades for his help before arriving on the island and allowing me to use a few of his photographs. Big thanks to the lovely Steff Leese for the use of her photograph too.
Also, we cannot forget the finder of the Black-billed Cuckoo, Richard Levett for making his remarkable discovery. Without this amazing find, none of the above would have been possible. Thanks a million Richard.
The BLACK-BILLED CUCKOO in Great Britain
This species breeds from Alberta eastwards across southern Canada and through the northern and central United States south to Oklahoma and eastwards to North Carolina. It is thought to spend the winter in the northern parts of South America, however the distribution is poorly known. It has been recorded primarily from Colombia east to western Venezuela and south to central Peru, though it possibly also occurs in eastern Peru and northeast Bolivia.
The first record for Britain occurred in 1932, when an 'American cuckoo' flew into a shed on Tresco, Isles of Scilly and promptly expired. Mr A F Griffith then exhibited the specimen at a meeting of the British Ornithologist's Club in December of that year as a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a species that had already occurred ten times at that point in history. At the next meeting the bird was discussed by Dr P R Lowe, who proved the bird to be an immature Black-billed Cuckoo. The doctor made the new identification from the diagnostic tail pattern of the species.
If acceptable the North Uist individual will become only the 15th record for Britain. All records are listed below:
2015 - Western Isles - Loch Sandary area, North Uist - adult - 22nd to 31st May.
2014 - Orkney - Holland House, North Ronaldsay - first-winter - 23rd October.
1990 - Isles of Scilly - St Mary's - 10th October (found dead 11th October).
1989 - At Sea - Sea Area Forties on Oil Platform Maureen taken into care 30th September.
1985 - Isles of Scilly - St Mary's - first-winter - 12th October.
1982 - Cheshire - Red Rocks, Hoylake - first-winter - 30th September.
1982 - Devon - Barnstaple - first-winter - 21st to 22nd October (caught and released).
1982 - Isles of Scilly - St Mary's - 21st to 23rd October (found dead 24th October).
1982 - Isles of Scilly - St Agnes - juvenile - 29th August (found dead 30th August).
1975 - Cleveland - Redcar - trapped and ringed - 23rd to 24th September.
1967 - Devon - Lundy - first-year female - 19th October (found dead 20th October).
1965 - Cornwall - Gweek - moribund individual - 30th October.
1953 - Shetland - Foula - exhausted individual - 11th October (found dead 12th October).
1950 - Argyll - near Southend, Kintyre - first-winter - 6th November (found dead 8th November).
1932 - Isles of Scilly - Tresco - immature - picked up dead after hitting a wall - 27th October.
If you ever wish to see a Black-billed Cuckoo in Britain and you are way too sensible to go rushing off to remote parts of the country, then you do have another option. The first British specimen from 1932 can be found in the Isles of Scilly Museum. In addition to this, the 1950 bird is on display at the Glasgow Museum & Art Gallery and the 1953 bird is at the Natural History Museum in Tring. The only other known specimen, from Devon in 1967, can apparently be found lurking in the archives of Leicester Museum.