Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the March 13, 2016 Newsletter issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort beside Chichén Itzá Ruins, central Yucatán MÉXICO

Here in the heart of the dry season the landscape looks wintry but certain flowerings and fragrances surprise you. There's perfume and dust, and butterflies and birds displaying increasing friskiness, even as the landscape itself keeps losing color, to dry and pucker, to lie stunned beneath ever more intense glare and heat.

In this context, around the hut this week, a certain strangely echoic, long-carrying birdcall began drifting through the forest, a high-pitched whistle seeming to ask "Are you freeeeeee?" the freeeeeee quavering, sometimes breaking up, but lifting in intonation as if the one asking really wanted to know. It was a lonely-sounding question, shimmering like blue ice, a little like the Thicket Tinamous' call, and at first that's what I thought it was, but then the call grew quite loud, drew close to the hut where I sat writing, and Thicket Tinamous are quieter and too retiring to come so near, so I stepped outside and looked around.

A group of North American birders was skulking through brush on the other side of my outside shower and by the time it dawned on me that they were looking for the same bird I was the black silhouette of a fairly large, long-tailed creature exploded from the undergrowth beside the shower, flew right at me, and at about arm's length from my face issued a surprised AWKK!, veered to the right, and disappeared into the forest behind me. By the time I'd recovered from that the birders were gathering around asking if I'd seen it.

"Pheasant Cuckoo," the leader gasped, carrying a camera with a telephoto lens as long as his leg. "Mega-twitch," in bird parlance meaning, "The name 'Pheasant Cuckoo' would look good on anyone's Life List of birds seen on birding trips all over the world."

Then the Pheasant Cuckoo flew past us and landed not far away. If his priority had been to escape us, he could have flown in other directions, or flown farther, but either something was tying him to this precise location, or he was as curious about us as we were about him. I'd never seen a Pheasant Cuckoo.

Pheasant Cuckoo, DROMOCOCCYX PHASIANELLUS He perched so nearby that I got the snapshot shown at the right.

In that picture his tail is ablaze with morning sunlight streaming in from the east. The broad, rusty-brown tail's shape -- longer in the middle, with rounded feather tips -- the scalloped pattern of the back feathers and the white line behind the eye, the supercilium, all are convincingly "Pheasant Cuckoo."

Pheasant Cuckoos, DROMOCOCCYX PHASIANELLUS, are described as fairly common but seldom seen, more often heard, from southern Mexico to northern Argentina, specializing in forests and plantations with dense undergrowth.

It's a real cuckoo, being a "brood parasite" -- so its females deposit their eggs in the nests of other birds who then raise the cuckoo's young as if they were their own.