Photo by Eric Parker, used with permission
I had a message this afternoon from Eric Parker, reporting that he and his wife Cathy had seen a very unusual looking bird up on Harbor Mountain near the picnic area. They were able to get many photos as they watched it fly from various perches down to the ground where it picked up bugs. After consulting the bird books at home, Eric thought it was probably a Common Cuckoo. I was able to talk to Cathy on the phone and listened to her description of the bird, as I looked in a couple of bird books I have of European and East Asian birds. There I found that Common and Oriental Cuckoos can be difficult to tell apart.
Regardless, I was pretty excited by this, as in either case it’s the most unusual bird documented in Sitka (that I can think of) since the Brown Shrike back in 1999. Looking on the annotated list of the birds of Alaska in A Birder’s Guide to Alaska by George C. West, it appears that the Common Cuckoo might be considered slightly more likely in some respects, as a casual spring migrant and early summer visitant in the Aleutian Islands, Gambell, and St. Paul Island, with mainland records at Nome and Anchorage. In the spring, the Oriental Cuckoo is primarily found in the western Aleutians in spring (where it is casual) or later in the year between late June and late September at Adak, Gambell, and St. Paul (when/where it is also casual). There is only one mainland record from Cape Prince of Wales (at the tip of the Seward Peninsula).
I’m not sure where else in North America either of these species might have shown up (perhaps it’s time to get a copy of Rare Birds of North America).
It’s hard to be sure if it’s a shadow/white balance issue, but this photo from Cathy Parker seems to suggest the undertail coverts of this bird were not pure white, which I think suggests it would be an Oriental Cuckoo
I was able to get up and spend a little time in the area this evening, but did not refind the bird. I will probably try again tomorrow (though the weather is supposed to be a bit less pleasant), and will certain give an update if I find it then.
In case anyone else wants to look for this bird, the easiest access is to drive to the third gate of Harbor Mountain road. From there it is a a little less than 2 miles to the picnic area parking lot. Eric and Cathy said they observed the bird at an opening just south of the picnic shelter. There is quite a bit of similar (mixed trees and open meadow/muskeg) habitat in the area, so it may be worth exploring around.
Thanks to Eric and Cathy for giving me permission to share some of their photos on my blog!
(click on thumbnails for larger version)