black-billed cuckoo

The Spark Bird

I had just left the first long open stretch of trail and started a dogleg through the woods when a bird flashed through the trees to my right. Out of the corner of my eye, all I could tell was that it was dove-sized and long-tailed. Mourning Dove.

The bird lit on a branch in deep shade just off the edge of the trail, and I got a better look. Wait a minute. Maybe not Mourning Dove. I lifted my binoculars on a two-toned bird, upper parts the color of shoe leather, underside creamy white. Long, curved bill. Whoa, I thought. That’s a cuckoo.

Black-billed Cuckoo
Definitely not a Mourning Dove.

Outside of a field guide, I had never seen a cuckoo. I’d never seen a lot of things. This hike was my very first solo bird walk, the first time I ever went into the field by myself with the express purpose of looking for birds.

I knew a little bit about birds, but what I knew was dwarfed by what I didn’t know. I didn’t know what kind of cuckoo it was; I don’t think I even knew there were different kinds. I didn’t know how common they were or whether it was unusual to see one here.

And I didn’t know this bird was going to change my life.

When I got back to my car and checked my few quick photos against Sibley, the ID became apparent: Black-billed Cuckoo. What wasn’t apparent to me then was how unexpected this bird was in this place.

Mason Farm Biological Reserve in Chapel Hill is one of the best and most popular birding sites in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. Managed by the North Carolina Botanical Garden, it’s a wonderful 367-acre tract with open fields, expansive brush, deep woods, and wetlands, all of which abound with birds.

Mason Farm
A foggy morning at Mason Farm.

But not Black-billed Cuckoos. Yellow-billed Cuckoos are regular at Mason Farm, but Black-billed Cuckoos are unusual anywhere in the Piedmont, and sightings there are very rare; aside from my bird, in fact, eBird still has only a single undated historical report.

yellow-billed cuckoo
The more common, but still elusive, Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

For a brand-new birder, the thrill of finding an even slightly unusual bird was heady stuff. The sum total of my dedicated birding experience up until then was a Bird ID 101 class and field trip offered by the New Hope Audubon Society. That was fun and fascinating, and it warmed my interest.

But it was that Black-billed Cuckoo that lit the fire. Somehow, with that one bird,  all the joys of birding suddenly snapped into focus:  the tranquility of the quiet walk, the thrill of the hunt, the puzzle of identification, the urge to collect, the artistic challenge of photography, the exciting possibility of discovering something unusual — and above all, the wild beauty of the birds.

That Black-billed Cuckoo was my gateway bird, my catalyst bird, my spark bird, what Corey Finger at 10,000 Birds calls a “trigger bird.” It was the bird that made me a birder. I’ve been a happily obsessed one ever since.

black-billed cuckoo
The bird that changed everything.

I’ve seen only one other Black-billed Cuckoo. The following spring, two much better birders invited me along on a stretch of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail near Falls Lake. I was the weak link, but near the end of the morning I spotted a bird silhouetted against the lake off to our right. Somehow my brain instantly recognized it, and the words were out of my mouth before I even had time to think: “Cuckoo! Black-billed Cuckoo.” And so it was.

I may never see another one. They are famously elusive. In the meantime, through a sort of fondness-by-association, their more outgoing cousins, the Yellow-billed Cuckoos, have a special place in my heart too. (One is calling insistently from the woods surrounding the deck where I’m sitting right now, in fact.)

Yellow-billed Cuckoo
A Yellow-billed Cuckoo peeks out from its hiding place.

I don’t know whether most other birders have a particular bird that lit the fire in them. For me, it was a Black-billed Cuckoo that appeared out of nowhere beside the trail one morning and opened up a whole world.


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