Harbor Mountain Cuckoo Quest

We had limited visibility when we reached the mixed open meadows near the picnic area

After yesterday’s exciting report of the cuckoo on Harbor Mountain, I was inspired to get up there last yesterday evening. I had limited time, and was not able to find the bird in the hour or so I was up there. So this morning after the early rain let up a bit, Connor, Rowan and I headed out. The third gate remains closed on Harbor Mountain road (due to a slide taking out part of the road), so we started walking the 1.5 miles up from there in an occasional light drizzle. Visibility dropped as we climbed through the low clouds. I had expected a more leisurely effort than I was forced to do yesterday evening with my limited time, but Rowan kept a brisk pace up the hill, and I found myself dripping inside and out as I worked to keep up with her. We made it to the picnic area a little after noon and stopped there for lunch under the shelter. We watched a junco gathering food while we ate. We could see cloud moving past as the moisture laden wind took the heat we had generated walking uphill, and by the time we finished eating we were all ready to get up and move again.

My first view was of a gray form through the mist

We checked all the picnic sites in the picnic are, but had no luck finding the cuckoo, so I said we could walk along the road over at least to the Harbor-Gavan Trail trail head. As we neared the viewpoint just off the road with a well-worn, but unofficial trail not far past the picnic area parking lot, I paused to take a closer look at some ground dogwood flowers (their identification is a problem I’ve been working on lately). Moments later, I heard Connor’s excited whisper – “I think that’s the cuckoo!” He pointed over to a snag near the viewpoint, but I only saw a flash of movement as it took off. Fortunately, it did not fly far, and we were able to keep an eye on it as we walked over to the viewpoint. From there I started taking pictures hoping that at least one would be identifiable if this was the only view we would get. As I was looking out to pick my way down a slope for a better angle, the cuckoo flew off in the direction of the picnic area, and we lost sight of it.

Connor stands watch in the mist

I asked Connor to stay at the viewpoint and watch, while Rowan went back along the road to the picnic area and I walked through the meadows in that direction. I hoped one of us would be able to see it and alert the others. Connor got impatient and started back to the road, and shortly after I heard Rowan calling, though I couldn’t understand her at first. Finally I was able to make out that she had seen the cuckoo near the picnic area parking, but it had flown back toward the viewpoint. So I turned back in that direction and discovered Connor was no longer there. I called to him to go back and watch, so he did that as I cut up to the road to check in more clearly with Rowan.

My first clear view of the Common Cuckoo

As I was walking back from getting a better understanding of where Rowan had seen the bird and which direction it had flown, I heard Connor calling over to say the clouds were lifting and he could see the water and islands below. Shortly after, that I heard him call out to let me know the cuckoo was back by the viewpoint and that I should be able to see it from the road. My first clear view of it was on a snag between him and I. It was there long enough for me to grab a photo before it flew off again. Fortunately, this time it stayed in the area of the viewpoint for a while, and I was able to get several more pictures (though all through a bit of cloud/fog that had settled back down again).

Mixed open meadow habitat where Common Cuckoo was hanging out

After moving between several perches near the viewpoint, I watched as the bird flew up across the road to the slopes on the uphill side. I chose to stay at the viewpoint while Connor and Rowan followed the bird over there and were able to get some good views (and photos, in Connor’s case) as it foraged over there for a little while. Before long it had flown back down near the viewpoint, and I was able to get some good views, including of the undertail coverts which looked white (rather than buffy) and help identify this bird as a Common Cuckoo (rather than the similar looking Oriental Cuckoo). Vocalization is another way to tell these species apart, but this bird never called while we were there. I didn’t think to try playing a recording of a Common Cuckoo until it had flown off shortly before we left. I think it may have been too far away to hear the recording from my phone, so I don’t know if it would have called in response. Vocalizations are apparently one good way to distinguish males from females. Shortly after the half-hearted attempt at playback, the clouds started dropping down more heavily and brought some rain with them. By this time we had been up there for close to 2 hours, and decided it was time to head back down to the car

Take a close look at the cuckoo’s bill in this picture and you can see the remains of what I think is a cranefly

Doing a little additional research at home, I learned that Common Cuckoos are brood parasites, laying eggs in the nests of other birds. As far as I can tell they are much smaller birds, and there’s an impressive photo on wikipedia of a Eurasian Reed Warbler feeding a young Common Cuckoo that already much larger than the adult warbler. Connor noted the similarity of this bird to Sharp-shinned Hawks, telling me that in other circumstances if he was unaware of the possibility of a cuckoo and not inclined to try for pictures, he probably would have walked on thinking it was a Sharp-shinned Hawk without looking too close. It seems the similarity of these birds with Sharp-shinned Hawks is advantageous, as their accipiter-like appearance gives them a little extra time to get an egg into the host nest, since the smaller birds are more wary of harassing them. Common Cuckoos favor open habitats where they eat insects, including hairy caterpillars that are not liked by other birds. I can’t be entirely sure what all this bird was catching, but my guess is that craneflies were one of the things (a guess confirmed somewhat by pictures where remains of what appear to be one were still in its beak).

My thanks again to Eric and Cathy Parker for finding and reporting this bird!

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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)

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Rainy Weekend

Rain continued for the fifth day in a row. Not much fell today, and there were actually patches of blue sky this afternoon. Yesterday’s nearly quarter inch brought the June total up to over 0.8 inches, more than doubling the total for the entire month of May.

The rain after all the sunny weather has left me feeling a little less compelled to get out and take pictures, which in turn has left me with less to say for daily blog posts. There were a few things that I did want to note, however.

Salmonberries have started to ripen. Connor mentioned friends picking some earlier in the week, and I saw my first ones with color today (both at the beginning of Verstovia Trail and at Crescent Harbor).

I’ve been a little surprised at just how much water the moss on the berm seems to take up. I’ve checked a couple of different times during this wetter spell of weather, and where the moss was thicker (but still not that thick), the under layers were still quite dry.

A male Rufous Hummingbird seems to have decided to try and take possession of the two feeders Connor has been maintaining around the house. Over the past couple of days when I’ve been out in the yard I’ve heard his distinctive humming sound, and at least once I saw him appear to chase off another bird.

This morning I went up to the first viewpoint on Mt. Verstovia with a friend. I was in the lead and try to go a sustainable pace. We made it up in a little less than 30 minutes. About the same amount of time it took me with Connor and Rowan recently. That time we moved faster (while moving) but had more (and longer) pauses to catch our breath. In the more distant past I’ve found it relatively easy to get to this point in under 20 minutes at a comfortable walk, so I’ve got some conditioning work to do if I want to get back to that point.

After the trip up Verstovia, I played some ultimate at Moller Park. Early on in the game, steam started rising off the turf. The overcast hadn’t yet parted, though the lower clouds that had shrouded the slopes of all the mountains had broken up, with wisps moving through the trees up the mountainside. It lent a different sort of atmosphere to the game.

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Rain Returns

As expected, the rain returned overnight. It was forecast to be fairly windy, and indeed the buoy was showing waves over 12 feet this morning when I checked. Around the house I never noticed a particularly strong wind. It was nice to have the warm summer rain. I hadn’t really thought about it until I was out in the rain this afternoon, but there is a distinct difference in feel of the rain when temperatures are in the upper 50s (as they were today) compared to the 40s or below (which is more typical fall through spring). Perhaps it was the dry spell that lasted most of the month, but I found it quite pleasant to be out this afternoon with the rain falling.

I noticed the (presumably) Anna’s Hummingbird female visiting under the porch again today. Connor had mentioned seeing her recently (within the past few days) as well. I’m not sure if she has started coming back after a hiatus, or if we just happened to miss her visits for a while.

Earlier this year I started moving old journal entries from 1998 into the weblog. I didn’t get too far, but what I did get done has started showing up in the “On this date in…” links. When I read the 4 June 1998 entry about a hike up Gavan Hill over to Harbor Mountain, I realized that was as bright a line as any in my journey towards becoming an obsessive sort of naturalist. Although I didn’t realize where it would ultimately lead, it was the first hike I went on with a (brand new) SLR camera that I hoped to use to take pictures of flowers and stuff. My motivation at the time was very much the photographic side of things. I’m not entirely sure where it came from, but I think in part it was inspired by my dad’s interest in photography, including nature photography. It was not something he spent much time on, but do remember being aware of it. What I didn’t understand until long after was how it would change the way I paid attention to the natural world. Nor did I realize I would feel compelled to try and find names for the things I photographed, and how that process would provide a certain kind of reinforcement that trigger some of my obsessives/compulsive tendencies.

I still remember being back in Pullman the following school year showing photos to my classmates in statistics classes who were in the botany program, hoping they could give me names. I even took a trip to the WSU herbarium for help. Now I understand how unrealistic it was to think they would be able to give me names of the plants/flowers I had photographed, but at the time I was pretty naive in my thinking.

There are still some remnants of those efforts to be found on my older site. One example is a picture of Cooley’s Buttercup from that hike. The title is correct, as I’m pretty sure I added it in when I finally figured out what the flower was. However, the caption still reads:

I found this flower while hiking in the alpine on 4 June 1998. This plant was not very large. It has been suggested to me that the leaves make this look like a buttercup of some sort, though another person pointed out that it is not unthinkable that the flowers don’t necessarily go with the leaves which the picture seems to put them with.

Of course now I recognize that plant immediately, but at the time it was completely new to me. The people I asked about it had no doubt never seen it, as it has a limited distribution (both in terms of habitat and overall range). So I wrote down what I could based on the answers I received to my questions. I think I ultimately figured this one out by photo matching in Pojar and McKinnon’s Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast.

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Sea Mart View

I got up this morning to find that it had rained earlier. I don’t think there was a lot of rain, but the ground was wet at least. Overcast conditions prevailed through the morning, though no additional rain (that I noticed) fell. By mid afternoon, clouds started breaking up, and by this evening it was quite sunny around town. Unlike over the past month however, the wind down on the water was coming out of the south/southwest. It looked like a band of clouds was moving in from the west. By late this evening the radar showed at least a couple of bands of pretty good rain moving in from the west, so I suspect sometime not long after midnight, that will arrive and we’ll get a good soaking.

Things are pretty quiet around the swallow nest. There’s often a bird sitting in the nest, and not much in and out. It will be interesting to see the activity level ramp up when the young hatch.

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Change of Weather Coming

The marine layer never burned off today. Forecast is for the rain to start tomorrow. Late this evening there is rain showing up on the radar, though still well offshore. I was interested to note that May 2014 was exceptionally dry, which I had only sort of remembered. This May was even drier yet, and I’m working on a follow up post about that.

The last couple days were full, with a boat ride yesterday and a long hike the day before. I have pictures I need to get processed and the weblog entries to post, so hopefully will get those completed in the coming days.

Today I had calls and Rowan wasn’t feeling at 100%, so spent little time outside. Connor reported that there were fresh deer tracks in the berms, and it appeared there might have been additional nibbles off a couple of the shrubs.

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