Yellow-billed Cuckoo – Great Pool, Tresco

I spent Tuesday 12th October on St Mary’s. The rest of the gang had gone to Tresco for the day but I had decided to take it more slowly and do some sketching and painting. I ended up on the Airfield and spent much of the early afternoon painting the Upland Sandpiper and the Short-toed Lark. Later on I made my way, rather slowly, back towards Old Town.

Just near Carn Gwarval School I met up with the rest of the gang, they had spent much of their day getting drunk in one of the pubs on Tresco! They immediately asked to look at my artwork and then called Bryan Bland over to have a look! Peter and I then went back to the flat while the others decided to carry on birding. We got to the flat at about 5:30pm and I was just taking my boots off and getting ready to do my stint preparing the Tea (I had planned to make Spag Bog.) when my pager went off on Mega Alert.

It was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo on Tresco and followed one that had been found in Cot Valley on Sunday. It was nearly 6pm and getting darker by the minute. Sunset was at about 6:15pm and it would be very dark by 7pm. Very soon another pager message reported that a boat would be going from the quay in 10 minutes. That was it, I was off. Peter didn’t need it and so he decided to stay in the flat and do my turn at the cooking.

I ran down to the Quay with my telescope and tripod banging against my side. I had that horrible ‘I can’t run any more but I mustn’t stop or I’ll not see this bird’ feeling. As I rounded the bend and headed towards the centre of Hugh Town a taxi bus came past me full of birders, it seemed to be stopping but as I got to the back doors it pulled away. I kept running and as the taxi slowed for a second time I closed in on the back doors only to see it accelerate again!

After another 5 minutes of jogging I reached the Quay. Nigel, Stuart and Richard were at the front of a queue of around 50 birders. Just like me Nigel hadn’t seen Yellow-billed Cuckoo before. A first boatload of 80+ birders had already pulled away. Nigel beckoned for me to join them and I jumped the queue. For what seemed an eternity we waited as the boatmen arranged a second boat. Eventually we set off on our dusk raid.

The boys told me that they had been in that taxi but that it was crammed full, they weren’t deliberately teasing me but just slowing down to avoid traffic. The sun was dropping fast and it was clear that seeing the bird before dark might be a problem. Overall, unless something went wrong, however, we seemed certain to have just enough time. We docked at New Grimsby and began the long run to the David Hunt hide on the eastern side of the Great Pool. I was already exhausted from my run on St Mary’s and keeping up with a fresh Nigel without a tripod (Stuart was carrying it) was impossible.

The next 10 minutes were agonisingly painful, there was no way I could stop running and allow dozens of birders past me yet my body was racked with agony. With the chilled evening air clawing at my gasping throat I turned the final corner and was horrified to see a long queue of birders waiting to see the bird.

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo had gone to roost deep within a dense copse and viewing was difficult. In order not to disturb the bird a single telescope had been trained on the stationery Cuckoo and one by one birders were funnelled passed for their 2 second view. Lee Evans was manning the queue and as each birder came back in a loop having seen the bird he would allow the next birder to start the loop. At any one time there were 4 birders walking around this small loop. Although it would have been difficult to design a more efficient system it appeared to me and the people around me that the queue was not shortening at all. I was probably around 100th position and it was now very possible that it would be pitch black before I got to the front of the queue. American Cuckoos have a habit of not surviving long because of their rather specialised diet and the thought of having to come back in the morning was too awful to contemplate.

I remained absolutely stationary in the queue for more than 15 minutes, we were all getting anxious and slightly aggressive, people were calling for those birders who had already seen Yellow-billed Cuckoo before to go to the back of the queue, no one obliged. What was actually happening was that birders were getting through fairly quickly but instead of the queue shortening it was just thinning. Nigel, who was about 30 people ahead of me seemed a bit more optimistic. All of a sudden the queue seemed to be shortening and soon I found myself stood next to Lee Evans and then I was on my way. I stepped though the undergrowth and up to the scope.

I re-focussed the barrel and quickly noted the long hanging wings, long drooping bill, classic American Cuckoo shape and a hint of yellow in the bill. With an intense feeling of relief I made way around the loop and joined Nigel. On the way back to the flat Peter paged me to suggest that there was no way I could tick a bird in those light conditions, he was nearly right!

The next morning we all went back to Tresco. The Cuckoo survived the night and over the course of the day I had fantastic views. The bird looked remarkably energetic and showed off its chestnut primaries, bright yellow bill and rather greyish undertail.With their inability to find suitable food in this country it was on borrowed time but remarkably survived until the 20th October. This bird was probably caught up in an Atlantic depression while migrating from South East Canada to South America.

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