Mangrove Cuckoo Madness

Anna FasoliBird Sightings, Birding, Featured2 Comments

The Cattle Landing count site run by Belize Raptor Research, where I am currently volunteering, is just north of Punta Gorda in the Toledo District of southern Belize. It is located just a few meters away from the coastline, which makes it an ideal spot for migrants of all kinds, not just raptors. Migrants can funnel in from the Mississippi Flyway across the Gulf, island hop from Florida, or from points north and northwest on the Yucatan Peninsula or Mexico. Raptors like Hook-billed Kites are using thermals along the coast, and migrant songbirds are really just funneling in from all directions through the forest canopy during the day as they forage and get ready for another night of long distance migration.

One of these migrants is the Mangrove Cuckoo. I have only been here for 4 days, but I have already seen two Mangrove Cuckoos passing through the site! This species was a nemesis bird of mine – I missed it on a birding trip in the Florida Keys a few years ago. Compared to Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Mangrove Cuckoos lack rufous in the primary feathers, which is easily visible in flight. Mangrove Cuckoos also have a very buffy/creamy breast and throat, and a black mask. In Belize, they are apparently very uncommon local residents on the coast, and have been extirpated as breeders in the cayes do to habitat loss (but can still occur on cayes as migrants).

The first Mangrove Cuckoo I saw popped out of the forest and flew into the low almond trees that line the Cattle Landing soccer field along the coastline. H. Lee Jones, the author of “Birds of Belize” was also on site for this one! We could not find it in the almond trees, so we moved to the road. Just as we did, we saw it fly straight across and into the trees near the Mangrove Inn. We then got a great look at it as it perched in a distant tree. Nemesis bird no more!

The second Mangrove Cuckoo passed through yesterday morning. While raptor migration was nonexistent due to lack of thermals/low cloud ceiling and rain, many songbirds were making the jump over the field and into town. While I was trying to identify warblers in flight, I noticed a cuckoo pop out of the trees and fly directly in front of us; the buffy underparts and black mask were very obvious in flight, and lack of rufous in primaries ruled out Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

Mangrove Cuckoo in flight. Note lack of rufous in primaries; Cattle Landing, Belize

Mangrove Cuckoo in flight – Cattle Landing, Belize (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

I immediately followed it and saw it perch in a tree, where it was very cooperative for pictures, even as cars and people passed close by. I am really not sure if two Mangrove Cuckoos in three days is normal here, or I just got extremely lucky. While we are able to watch for non-raptor migrants at the site when things are slower, I am really wondering how many Mangrove Cuckoos sneak by undetected. Maybe they are not as rare along the coast as we think, and perhaps they are just under-reported due to lack of access along the coast, and their sheepish behavior.

Mangrove Cuckoo; Cattle Landing, Belize

Mangrove Cuckoo – Cattle Landing, Belize (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

Yellow-billed Cuckoo with bill deformity; Cattle Landing, Belize (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

Yellow-billed Cuckoo with bill deformity – Cattle Landing, Belize (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

In addition to Mangrove Cuckoos, I have seen a handful of Yellow-billed Cuckoos passing through the site. This one landed just a few meters away from us, clearly not doing so well. It had an extreme bill deformity, which probably explains its unpreened feathers. On top of this, its eye was half closed and it looked exhausted, and was leaning to one side. No healthy cuckoo would sit in the open for a few minutes in plain sight, and I think this one probably will get picked off by a Merlin if it hasn’t already died.