Sunday, January 16, 2011

Gone Cuckoo

Lesser Ground-Cuckoo ©Mark Stackhouse
Last week, I had a delightful time guiding a Franciscan priest from California and his friend from Colima for a few days here. He was more interested in photographing birds than just seeing them, so our pace was a bit slower than normal, something that may not result in a longer bird list, but often allows you to see more.

After a pleasant, but photographically frustrating, morning in Tecuitata, where most of the 81 species we found played coy with the camera, we went to Singayta the next day, and had better luck finding birds willing to “ham it up.” One of the most memorable moments of that morning, and indeed, of the entire week for me, came when we were about half a kilometer down the road from the village. My companion had gone off the road into a pasture to try for a photograph of a Groove-billed Ani, a species he had not had success with in the past. Not wanting to risk ruining his chances, I stayed on the road.

First view, on the roadside ©Mark Stackhouse
Groove-billed Ani is the most common, and by far most easily seen, of five cuckoos we have in the San Blas area. The next most regularly seen cuckoo is the elegant Squirrel Cuckoo, that is common and widespread in wooded areas, but often gives up only fleeting views as it moves inside the trees. With some effort and luck, Mangrove Cuckoos are regularly, but not always, found on boat trips. The fourth cuckoo, Lesser Roadrunner, is rarely seen here, and almost always in the patch of open agricultural land about halfway along the road to La Noria on Cerro de San Juan.

Emerging from the thicket ©Mark Stackhouse
Our fifth cuckoo is the enigmatic Lesser Ground-Cuckoo. Found from Mexico to Costa Rica, this cuckoo is widespread, and seemingly even common, in San Blas. But perhaps most birders visiting here will go home without having seen one, although many will have it as a “heard only” bird on their list. The first time I saw this bird was along the road to Monteverde in Costa Rica, where 30 minutes of hard work finally produced a brief glimpse as the bird flew from one clump of bushes into another. Perhaps that’s why I cursed the vagaries of birding when my good friend, Julio Gallardo from Veracruz, saw his first one too easily, sitting in the open on top of a pile of brush, while we were birding on the coast of Oaxaca. But I've learned that even this epic “skulker” will occasionally give up a good view – a few years ago we saw seven in one morning in Tecuitata.

Out in the open ©Mark Stackhouse
While watching my client pursue the flock of anis in that Singayta field, the corner of my eye caught a slight movement among some dead leaves along the side of the road. It was a Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, in full view. I snapped a few quick photos before it went into some brush, and then flew across the road into a dense thicket. I noticed that the anis had given my friend the slip (again), so I called to him to hurry back to the road to see if we might have better luck with the other cuckoo.

Sunbathing ©Mark Stackhouse
I played the call on my iPod, and after a couple of reps the cuckoo called back. After a couple more, the cuckoo emerged from the edge of the brush. With my amigo rapidly clicking pictures, I switched off the iPod and started taking photos myself. Then the cuckoo put on a real show. First it hopped into the open in a small tree in front of the thicket. Then it moved to an open branch and spent some minutes sunbathing. After that, as if to remind us that it’s a ground-cuckoo, it dropped to a patch of open space right in front of us and began foraging in the leaf litter – all in the perfect light of the morning sun. Never had I seen a Lesser Ground-Cuckoo so well, and so close. You can see my photos that resulted from this encounter.

For me, it was perhaps the highlight, out of many contenders, during a morning of birding and photography that also produced a bird list of 116 species by noon.

Being a  ground-cuckoo ©Mark Stackhouse

Have you seen Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, in San Blas, or elsewhere? Share your experience in the comments.


  1. te felicito por el encuentro con esta especie dificil de ver, que gran dia tuvieron

  2. Pues si, fue un gran dia, pero eso es lo normal aqui. Pero de todos modos tuvimos mucha suerte con ese pajaro.

  3. That ground cuckoo is divine. Hope to go to Singyata soon and see it. Great photos... Mad