Cuckoo a rare visitor here



My email this week brought me a photo of a late migrant that hit a local window and died of its injuries. The bird was identified as a yellow-billed cuckoo. These lovely looking birds are brief and not-too-common visitors to outer islands. They are generally found during the warmer months in the southern parts of Maine. The black-billed cuckoo is the more common cuckoo found here on this island, from June and into October. The yellow-billed cuckoo is rare and only recorded from August to a little ways into October. It was found dead in Bass Harbor. Cuckoos winter in South America.

Cuckoos are long-tailed, sleek looking birds. Their white bellies show clearly. They forage slowly in the vegetation and trees looking for food, especially their favorite, caterpillars. When caterpillars are abundant, cuckoos stuff themselves, eating even as many as 100 at a time. Even though the caterpillars are bristly and their spines often get stuck in the birds’ stomach lining, the birds merely spit out the stomach lining containing the quills and get a new one.

Any pesticides used on any caterpillars can harm the birds. Cuckoos are in danger generally because their near-river habitat is gradually being ruined and they suffer collisions with buildings, towers and turbines on migration.

Not only are cuckoos interesting to see, but they have some interesting nesting habits. There are sometimes five days between the laying of each egg, so the young develop at different rates. Within one week after hatching, the young birds are fully feathered and ready to leave the nest. The youngest bird in the nest may be removed if food is short.

This bird is sometimes called the “thunder bird,” for it has a habit of calling loudly when it hears thunder. Cuckoos are not easy to see usually, but they are well worth hearing and seeing. The black-billed cuckoo and the yellow-billed cuckoo are small birds compared to the European cuckoo. I’ll never forget seeing and hearing the European cuckoo in England a few years ago as a friend and I hiked across the countryside one day. The loudly called “cuck-ooo” heard across the valley was impressive! When I finally got to see the bird with my binoculars, it was very big and reminded me of a hawk. The cuckoos seen here in Maine are small by comparison.

Large rafts of eiders are being seen in Salisbury Cove as they feast on the mussels there. A column reader sent me an excellent video of them. Eiders are big barge-like ducks seen year-round in our waters, but now especially, they congregate in large group “rafts” out on the water. It is fun to watch them as they feed, and it is easy now to see the males and females and distinguish one from the other.

The males show a lot of white on the back, black on the flanks and black on the top of the head and long, sloping Roman nose. The female is brown. Birds in transition are white, brown and black until they become adult males. Eiders are very fond of mussels, and it is great fun to watch the ducks dive for them. The size and quantities of mussels they can eat is surprising. Mussels are large and sharp, and the eider’s gizzard may contain 36 of them. These are hard and difficult for most creatures to digest, but the eider is equipped with a powerful gizzard that mechanically breaks the shells into tiny pieces. Chemical secretions complete the task. I’ve not experienced this, but I have heard that if you were close to an eider when the gizzard is doing its job, you can hear the grinding. In turn, Eiders give back their droppings, which add calcium to the available environment to the betterment of plants nearby.

Muskrats are putting on the finishing touches on their homes in preparation for winter. You can see these homes in many places on Mount Desert Island as you drive along local ponds. Muskrats are about the size of a house cat, sparsely haired with a long, thick tail that serves as a rudder when swimming. Beady eyes peer at you from their broad and blunt heads. You quite often catch sight of them swimming across a small pond or in a place like Northeast Creek. Their furry coats are almost waterproof. Males and females look alike. While canoeing in Northeast Creek one day with a friend, we saw a mother muskrat carrying her baby across the water in her mouth to a safer spot. If you happen to see one swim underwater as I did one day many years ago, their fur looks like silver and is very beautiful. They are right at home in the water. Muskrats continue building their lodges throughout the year and may have more than one. They are active throughout the year but are mainly night animals.

Deer are out and about everywhere, so be especially careful at dusk and after dark. I, in my car, and a car approaching me had to slam on our brakes this week one night in Bass Harbor when a large deer suddenly appeared and ran across the road between us. We had both stopped just in time.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Columnist
Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.
Ruth Grierson

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