Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Cuckoo! Cuckoo!

Black-billed Cuckoo at Houston Meadow. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski

It all started with a loud "Coo, Coo, Coo, Coo." That is more or less the truth. It actually started with a Philadelphia e-bird rare bird report that a Black-billed Cuckoo had been seen at Houston Meadows last Saturday. I'd already been planning to go to there on Monday morning but the report gave an added impetus.

After sorting through the 10 or so more familiar bird songs and calls I heard as soon as I arrived the loud and clear call of the Black-billed Cuckoo,  sounding more what the non-birder would expect a cuckoo to sound like, rather than the "kowlp, kowlp, kowlp" of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, the more common cuckoo in our area.

It took me a while to find him and I moved slowly and cautiously because cuckoos seem easily spooked. I knew he was close and finally spotted him 20-30 feet away 30-40 feet in the air, pretty much out in the open.
Black-billed Cuckoo and Wood Thrush. Field Sketches by Ken Januski.

Once I got a good look at him in my binoculars I took out my sketchbook and started sketching. I didn't have my scope and tripod so it was back to the usual method of looking through binoculars, then sketching while I stood, tying to coordinate with two hands the three objects -- sketchbook, pencil and binoculars -- that really needed three hands. This is an awkward method and much is lost. BUT it's much harder to get lost in detail, thus missing the overall sense of the bird, that is so easy when viewing a bird with the heightened magnification of a scope. (Later in the day I stopped at Carpenter's Woods and indulged in one of my favorite type of drawing -- drawing thrushes. That is the other drawing on the page).

Later in the day I did the pencil and watercolor sketch at top of the Black-billed Cuckoo. Though I took at least 30 photos only 2-3 turned out. The watercolor is based on the best one, coupled with my field sketch. Oddly I didn't realize until I started looking through my field guides that this bird had some characteristics of an adult cuckoo, specifically the red orbital ring, and some of a juvenile, the buff/rust wash on throat and the grayish underside of tail.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo at Carpenter's Woods. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Thrilled as I was with seeing the Black-billed Cuckoo I decided to spend early Tuesday at Carpenter's Woods looking for warblers. It was pretty quiet. Until 8:00 a.m. when a large bird landed in the ungainly way of cuckoos about 10 yards away. There was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. I've learned to not immediately grab for my camera when I see a bird I'm happy to see. First I look, just appreciating the bird, but also trying to memorize its appearance. Then I may sketch and/or I may reach for my camera.

I realized that given how close he was that the movement of removing my camera from its case might be enough to scare him off. And, yes, just as I got the camera out and raised it to my eyes to focus he flew, not to be found again. Since cuckoos are favorite birds of both myself and Jerene when I returned home I suggested that we stop by again later, while out running errands nearby, in the hopes that he'd still be there and that Jerene could see her first cuckoo of the year.

We did return to Carpenter's Woods but found no sign of the cuckoo. At least not in the area he had been. But quite a distance away we heard the familiar "kowlp, kowlp, kowlp." Momentarily he appeared near us then flew off to distant trees. He was just close enough to recognize in our binoculars and barely close enough to take a photo of. Again I took about 30 photos but all with the bird a tiny speck in the entire photo. Still there was enough detail for me to do this pencil and watercolor sketch this morning.

I'm still looking forward to seeing all the warblers. But I can't complain about three looks at two different cuckoo species in the space of 24-30 hours. Later to day I hope to print the one color version of the American Kestrel linocut.

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