Oriental Cuckoo on Helgoland?

Jochen Dierschke

A strange cuckoo has troubled our minds the last days on Helgoland. Could it be an Oriental Cuckoo, a species not yet recorded safely in Europe outside its Russian breeding grounds?

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The Cuckoo in question (picture by Thorsten Stegmann). Note the dark upperparts, the tiny appearance and the barring on the underparts.

 

On May 25th, local warden Felix Timmermann checked in early morning ID features of birds for his forthcoming trip to the Ural mountains, including the voice of Oriental Cuckoo. Only an hour later, he heard a Hoopoe-like call. The call sounded like the introduction part of Oriental Cuckoo song, but the bird remained unseen. Felix informed me, but I had no time to check due to a breeding bird survey on the neighbouring dune island. The next morning, only a few hundred meters away, another Hoopoe-like call (three syllables) was heard, but again no sighting of the bird.

In the morning of May 27th, a “strange Cuckoo” was seen by several birders at the 2nd site. I became a bit excited and went to see the bird. When I saw it, I realized several features consistent with what I knew about the ID of Oriental Cuckoos, so I tried to take pictures, especially in flight. The bird then flew to the other side of the island and was relocated there and gave excellent views. A check of the literature suggested that we needed to trap the bird. In the evening we erected mistnets close to his favoured site, but although we played the female call, which is supposed to be good for trapping cuckoos, the bird was not seen again. Also next morning we tried to trap, but it seemed that the bird had finally taken of, with a lot of caterpillars in his belly.

Looking in the literature, it became evident that not a single feature is unique to Oriental Cuckoo (except the song), but a combination of the features pointed towards Oriental:

Size: The bird looked tiny and short-billed in the field

Upperparts: Rather dark for a Common Cuckoo; some retained tertials and secondaries indicate a 2nd-year bird.

Underparts: The belly-streaking was not as dense in Common Cuckoo. On the pictures we counted 7-8 complete black bars from belly to breast. The width of the black bars varied between postures, but certainly they can be more obvious in Oriental. The vent and undertail coverts produced a large, unbarred peachy-buffish patch. Only the longest undertail-coverts were more whitish with black bars.

Underwing: The bird showed a White’s Thrush like underwing pattern with a broad white stripe. The lesser underwing-coverts were unmarked and buffish. The primary barring was rather bold, but the exact number of white bars could not be counted, as the bases of the primaries are partially covered by the greater coverts.

As Common Cuckoo is quite rare on the island in spring, it seems unlikely that several birds were involved in the sightings. So, we face a Cuckoo which calls like an Oriental, looks at least to me like an Oriental – but is this enough for a 1st record for Europe outside the Russian breeding areas? The Finnish birds have not been accepted, as there were some features odd for Oriental, like a call of three syllables, wing length (see Lindholm & Linden 2003, Alula 4: 122-133). Also the Helgoland cuckoo uttered a call with three syllables. However, this might be just a disturbed introduction of the song.

Oriental Cuckoo has not been safely recorded in Europe outside the Russian breeding grounds. However, it certainly should be on the radar of European birders!

Any comments on the ID of the bird – good or bad news – are very welcome!

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The Helgoland Cuckoo in flight from below. Note the obvious underwing panel, especially the unmarked lesser underwing-coverts. Note also the barring and the pattern of the undertail coverts.

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Note the retained juvenile tertials and the pattern of the undertail coverts.

8 thoughts on “Oriental Cuckoo on Helgoland?

  1. R. Graf

    Hallo Jochen,

    in meine Augen kein Hopfkuckuck, da
    1) sich die Sperberung zur Brustmitte verdünnt
    2) der Bürzel keine durchgehende Bänderung aufweist und
    3) die Unterflügelzeichnung eher für einen Kuckuck spricht.

    Gruß
    Roland

    Reply
    1. Nial Moores

      Three things from the Republic of Korea (Korea):
      1) Common Cuckoo can give a 3-note courtship vocalisation (=song) outside of Europe too. Two heard in May 2015 (out of ~75+ Common Cuckoo). The first alternated sequences of three notes and two-notes. In both, the first note was additional, a quiet, breathy “Peu” (so “Peu-Cu-Kuu”).
      2) How big or small are Oriental Cuckoo? A top field-guide here states total length as 30-34cm (Common Cuckoo is given as 31-32.5cm). Oriental Cuckoo here often look pretty similar in size to Common Cuckoo in the field. And greater wing-length is suggested as the way to separate optatus from saturatus. Very surprised therefore to see an in-hand Oriental at http://www.amurbirding.blogspot.kr/ in which it looks REALLY small in direct comparison with a Common, and to read Jochen’s comments. Should Oriental Cuckoo really look strikingly small?
      3) The black bars on the underparts of the Helgoland cuckoo look narrower and wavier than shown by “typical” adult-type and at least some sec-cal Oriental Cuckoo in Korea.

      Reply
  2. linosabirding

    please comments in English (even if I love German but many readers are not able to read this beautiful lenguage 🙂

    Jochen,

    for what concern the call, it is barely reported anywhere, that also “our” Cuculus at times hutter an ALMOST ! Hoopoe-like call…. I mean, not as many sillabe as in Oriental but more than the usual coo-cuuu …. huttering some times a coo-cooo-cù, coooo-cooo-cù …so a trisillabic or sometimes vene 4-sillabic call! But I never heard indeed a fast, repeated coo-coo-coo-coo-cùùù
    Also the underwing I find it extremely hard to judge and very variable (have checked many Cuculus canorus underwing !!) …however, in your bird the underparts barring and undertail looks really promising, but a call recording could has been much better to prove definitely such a MEGA ! Also, any drop or feather for DNA !!

    ciao

    Reply
  3. Geoff Carey, HK

    In a forthcoming (in press) review of the vocalisations of Oriental (optatus) and Himalayan (saturatus) Cuckoos, my co-authors and I analysed the song of a large number of birds from western Siberian to Japan (optatus) and Himalayas (saturatus). Oriental Cuckoo consistently uttered 2-note song phrases, excluding the first introductory phrase, which is composed of a short medley of ‘soft’ (as noted by Lindholm and Linden) elements.

    Is the voice of this bird the introductory soft phrase, which can be uttered on its own by birds on migration? Or can westernmost optatus have a three-note song phrase (perhaps less likely given the consistency further east)? In addition of course, low-intensity song given on migration or the song of first-summer birds, which are more likely to occur extra-limitally, are more likely to be less than fully-formed in some way. I would suggest trying to obtain recordings of the full song, if it is given.

    Reply
  4. Jeff Stenning

    Hello Jochen,
    A friend informed me of your post on the Helgoland Cuckoo on 25th, 26th & 27th May this year, prompting this reply. Another friend and myself were birding at Wicken Fen nature reserve in Cambridgeshire, England on 2nd May this year. I heard a low note uttered twice from somewhere in the reedbed behind a line of trees and considered Hoopoe. The listening conditions weren’t good, with a strong east-north-east wind and my friend didn’t heard the call. I heard the same thing about half a minute later and again my friend didn’t hear it and when we cleared the line of trees, I saw a cuckoo sitting in a lone willow at the end of the reedbed. It was facing us and looked upright without drooping wings or cocked tail. I am confident that I saw a yellowish/peach wash in the undertail area but my friend thought it was shading, otherwise it appeared as Cuckoo. My friend by then had a bad headache and carried on walking but I showed the bird to a group of birders coming along the path. After a minute or so, it flew down to catch something in a gap in the reeds and as it was difiicult to see, we all carried on. All told, I watched the bird for not more than four minutes. I informed two local birders, one of whom said he would inform Prof Nick Davies, who’s been carrying out a long-term study of the Wicken Fen Cuckoo population but haven’t had any feedback. I also listened to recordings of Oriental Cuckoo on it’s Russian breeding grounds and, albeit only a snippet, I’m confident that’s what I heard.
    All The Best for Now,
    Jeff Stenning

    Reply
  5. Stephen Menzie

    It may not have any great bearing on the identification of the bird but to my eyes – at least from the photographs presented here – the bird should be left unaged. I can see no evidence of retained secondaries (juvenile nor adult: both age classes can retain secondaries), and the “retained” tertials (and similar looking coverts) appear to be feathers moulted early in the moult sequence rather than unmoulted feathers. For comparison, take a look this first-summer bird with an obviously juvenile retained secondary. Maybe not all second-years are so obvious but retained juvenile feathers would certainly be more worn and patterned than anything shown on this bird.

    Reply
  6. Jochen Dierschke

    Thanks Stephen!
    Well, the Fair Isle Cuckoo certainly looks much mor 2nd year than our bird. I did not know that adults can retain old feathers as well – thanks!

    Reply

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