Monthly Archives: October 2012

A Common Cuckoo for California

Common Cuckoo

Common Cuckoo

When someone found a Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) at Watsonville Slough, we knew we had to try for it. Common Cuckoo is an Old World species with a broad distribution in Europe and Asia, with some wintering in Africa. You’ll note though that none of those places include California! In fact, the species is regular if not annual on the islands of western Alaska. However, prior to the Watsonville bird, only one previous sighting in the lower 48 states existed. That bird graced Martha’s Vinyard more than 30 years ago. This Common Cuckoo may be common in Asia, but south of Canada, it’s decidedly uncommon. We anxiously watched the birding hotlines through Saturday. After the latest sighting in the afternoon, we decided to go for it. How do you resist a bird this good?!

Arriving in Watsonville

We arrived in Watsonville in the wee hours of the morning. We tried four different motels before finally secured lodgings for the little remaining night. Dawn came really early the next morning, and dragging ourselves out of bed was an act of will. But hey, we’re birders and Common Cuckoo is a killer bird so we did it. So did a lot of other people, as it turned out. Over 50 birders crowded Ramsay Park as we pulled up. And in something of an anti-climax, they already had the bird in view as we walked up. We decided we could live with that!

Sub-adult Common Cuckoo

Sub-adult Common Cuckoo

This Common Cuckoo may only have been an immature, but it was already a veteran when it came to positioning itself. The bird frequented willows on the western edge of Watsonville Slough. There it expertly selected perches that invariably placed it right in front of the sun from the only available vantage points. It also chose spots where there were always intervening branches and leaves in front of it. That confounded all auto-focusing. We took many obstructed photos. These are some of the shots that were a little less so. Note the lovely orange orbital ring and the gorgeous barring to the chest. These images were captured through a Kowa TSN-884 spotting scope equipped with 20-60x zoom eyepiece and a Nikon CoolPix P6000 camera attached using a Kowa TSN-DA-10 digiscoping adapter. We mounted the optics on a Manfrotto 701HDV,055CXV3 carbon fiber tripod with a digiscoping head.

Yellow-billed Magpie: Another Roadside Attraction

We were driving back from central California when we stopped at the rest stop near Camp Roberts on U.S. Route 101. We consistently find Yellow-billed Magpie at this particular rest stop and did on this visit as well. We had only been there for a few minutes when 4 or 5 of these handsome birds flew in and began feeding in the leaf litter under the large, spreading oaks.


Yellow-billed Magpie is endemic to California, meaning they live no place else on the planet besides here. Birders always prize endemics over those more widespread species.  They are big, beautiful and intelligent members of the family Corvidae, which includes all crows, ravens and jays worldwide. As such, they are often pretty skittish and seldom allow close approach. At this rest stop, however, they became habituated to being around people, which means they are easier to photograph. Even so, we chose to digiscope them from distance rather than approach closely. From farther away, the birds relax some and act naturally in our presence. This video was taken with a Nikon CoolPix P300 digital camera attached to a Kowa TSN-883 spotting scope.

Notice also how little yellow skin these magpies show around the face. The amount of yellow facial skin shown by a Yellow-billed Magpie varies with the individual. It may also vary with differing molt states. In our experience, the magpies at this particular site show more yellow than those in other places we’ve been.

 (If the video doesn’t load properly, try refreshing the screen and then retry. We’re seeing this a lot lately.)

YouTube video

Featherless Joy of Birding

Birdless Joys of Birding - Desert Bighorn Sheep near Zzyzx.

Desert Bighorn Sheep near Zzyzx.

The joy of birding doesn’t always include birds. We made a successful three hour drive to Baker, California to see a White Ibis. White-faced Ibis are the common species in California. Glossy Ibis is very rare. And this was the first White Ibis I’ve seen in the state in nearly 20 years of birding. We then decided to check some other local spots. We know of several in the area that can often be productive.

One of our favorite spots is the California State University Desert Studies Center at Zzyzx. Formerly a desert resort, this oasis has springs and accommodations that facilitate workshops of many kinds, and on a good day, can have lots of migrant birds refueling in the trees and ponds. Some desert residents even breed there. So, we drove in, parked, and walked around searching for some rare bird to tickle our fancy. We checked the ponds, the tamarisks, the palms, and the willows. We even scanned the rocky hillsides and the salt pan.

Big(horn) Surprise

The place was virtually bird-less. But on our way out, we chanced upon this particular joy of birding, a flock of Desert Bighorn Sheep. These animals are very reclusive, so we stopped to get some photos and video. We shot some rewarding footage recording behavior that very few people get to see. I recorded the video with a Nikon CoolPix P6000 camera through a Kowa TSN-884 spotting scope.

YouTube video

We used digiscoping so that we could keep our distance and avoid spooking the sheep. Through digiscoping, we were able to record Desert Bighorn Sheep doing things that are not often seen. Be sure to follow along with the narration in the video. We point out such behavior as the ram asserting his dominance and insisting on submission from one of the younger males.