An Exciting Bird in The Mangrove

February 9, 2010

Nature Notes by Bill Dunson


I have undoubtedly commented before on the importance of fresh new discoveries to add excitement to our daily explorations in nature. Of course these do not happen at a grand scale every day, but there is also always something of interest to be found whenever you get a chance to venture out into the wonderful world of nature. Today I had one of those rarer moments that come without warning. My wife and I received a call from a friend (Betty Baust) who is a ranger at Stump Pass State Park in Englewood, FL, that she and a group walking in the park had spotted an unusual bird that they identified as a mangrove cuckoo. Now if you know your cuckoos, you will be aware that this is not a species that you encounter very often and I admit I was skeptical that this was indeed a mangrove cuckoo.

There are three species of closely related cuckoos, yellow-billed (wide-spread in the eastern and middle N. America), black-billed (restricted to northeastern and mid-western N. America) and mangrove (restricted to S. FL & Caribbean), and they are rather similar in appearance. They specialize in eating caterpillars, in many cases the very hairy ones that other birds will not eat, and as a result disgorge pellets of the hairs. For the most part these birds are not nest parasites as are the European cuckoos. Despite their large size they are hard to find since they sit for long periods without moving, and rarely give their distinctive call in Winter. When we began our search for the mangrove cuckoo at Stump Pass we spent almost an hour in the target area without finding the bird. Then suddenly it flew a short distance and then sat hardly moving for another 15 minutes allowing me to photograph it (see photos). I am now convinced that this is certainly a mangrove cuckoo based on the black upper bill/mandible, the dark eye mask, and the buffy belly feathers just visible to the right of the left wing in the photograph. This is really an astonishing find since these birds are so cryptic and rarely are found this far north in Florida in the Winter. I am excited about this since it provides a small glimpse into the private life of a very beautiful and specialized inhabitant of the mangrove fringe of the Florida coast.

Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL & Galax, VA

Bill Dunson

About Bill Dunson

Bill Dunson, born in rural Georgia, skipped 12th grade and went directly to Yale. Bill subsequent-ly received a PhD in Zoology from the University of Michigan, studying softshell turtles. Bill is Professor Emeritus of Pennsylvania State University thanks to a career spent entirely at that institution, teaching and doing research on the physio-logical ecology and ecotoxiciology of reptiles, amphibians and fish. Always curious about nature, Bill has dedicated his life to learning and sharing his knowledge with others. He has served on many advisory boards here in Southwest Florida to preserve the water that gives life to our region.

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