Yellow-billed Cuckoo – 1994 – 2nd for Pembrokeshire

Coccyzus americanus – Cog BigfelenVagrant

On the morning of the 30th October, 1994, a group of local birders visited the National Trust car park at Porthclais to look for a Yellow-browed Warbler reported there.  The morning was dry but overcast, and there was a strong wind blowing from a southerly direction.  During the night a fast-moving trans-Atlantic depression had tracked across south-west Wales, with strong S-W winds.

Several “younger”, more energetic, birders wandered off to look for the Y-b Warbler, leaving me along contemplating a small area of will scrub, in the knowledge that small birds are mobile and the warbler might yet come my way.

Suddenly a triumphant yell from somewhere out of sight alerted me to the fact that the warbler had been sighted. However, something far more exciting was happening on my side of the “patch”.

A largish bird came hurtling low over the surrounding scrub and, in a great flurry, dived into the large sallow bush several metres to my immediate front.  The initial impression was of a brownish bird with strikingly pale underparts and long, unwieldy dark brown and white tail.

The bird skulked in the sallow bush for a brief period, flitting through the scrub, providing fairly good views, then dived out of sight.

By now I realised that I was watching an American cuckoo, but which one?

Nerve ends jangling, I hastily scribbled my field notes.  It was obviously a small, slim cuckoo, in some respect rather dove-like when perched.  The upperparts were brown, slightly lighter on the head; the underparts were strikingly white.  The upper surface of the long tail was clearly seen as the bird perched with its back towards me – the outer tail feathers were white, giving the impression of a distinct white edge to the upper tail.  The undertail was very dark-centred and had obvious large white “notches” running down both sides.  These being formed by the white tips to the tail feathers.  At rest the folded wing displayed a bright rufous patch in the primaries and primary converts.  The bill, strongly down-curved, appeared blackish but I failed to get a completely clear view of this and the prevailing light conditions did not help.

Y-b warbler forgotten, all were now back in the car park earnestly praying that the bird would re-appear, but to no avail.

Trevor Price, perhaps with some intuitive knowledge, wandered off alone.  Later we heard him shout that he had re-located the bird.  Unfortunately, because of the contours of the land and the disposition of the willow scrub, we could no see him or the bird, and locating him took a circuitous detour and some time.

When we finally arrived at the spot, the bird had disappeared.  Extensive searching proved fruitless, the bird was never seen again.

Comparing notes, Trevor and I concluded that we had been watching a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) – a North American bird, which breeds from southern Canada south to central Mexico and the Caribbean.

The record has been accepted by the BBRC and thus becomes the seond record for Pembrokeshire: the first being a bird shot at Stackpole in 1832.

K.J.S.Devonald and T.J.Price

First published in the 1994 Pembrokeshire Bird Report.

Donovan J.W. & Rees G.H, 1994, Birds of Pembrokeshire

More about the Yellow-billed Cuckoo in Pembrokeshire