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Mangrove Cuckoo study to end

By Staff | May 20, 2015

Rachel Frieze’s study of the Mangrove Cuckoo ends in June. CRAIG GARRETT

Say goodbye to the cuckoo lady.

Funding for the work of wildlife biologist Rachel Frieze deadlines in June, ending her study of the Mangrove Cuckoo, the endlessly popular yet rarely sighted bird making its home at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Sanibel.

Because of what she had researched, locals had nicknamed Frieze the “Cuckoo Lady,” a moniker she struggled with in the beginning, but embraced as time passed.

“Just today, (people) were at the side of the road honking and waving,” she said, her truck with a Mangrove Cuckoo sticker on the door. “They used to say ‘There goes the cuckoo lady.’ It’s funnynow.”

Frieze for a couple of years has researched the lifestyle of the Mangrove Cuckoo, its bandit mask on both genders. One day of a nomadic life at the Ding has her knee deep in mangrove muck and bugs, cleaned up the next day lecturing to an eager Audubon group hanging on her words. Everyone it seems wants a piece of the unusual and highly secretive critter with a froggy croak and long tail feathers, she said. Bird-watchers from around the globe visit the Ding for a special tour with Frieze, just for a glimpse. She’s been bear-hugged by birders sighting a resting cuckoo. Her research for the EcoStudies Institute and funded by the Ding Friends/Society and Disney is available online, and will likely be the last word on the elusive and rarely studied bird. Local artist Myra Roberts even painted a Mangrove Cuckoo oil that was converted to souvenir T-shirts to help fund the study.

Ending the research, Frieze said, “is a loss for me, a loss for the cuckoo, and almost like a loss for Sanibel.”

In a world of hyper-examination, it’s hard to imagine wildlife that biologists know little about. But it’s true with the Mangrove Cuckoo, a bird about the size of a bluejay that nestles deep in south Florida’s mangrove forests. The bird’s froggy vocals and distinct features thrill birders and biologists snatching the occasional glimpse of its bandit-masked face and long tail feathers. Because it’s difficult to observe and because the population is diminished, the Mangrove Cuckoo has acquired a fabled status.

Frieze in her research, that included net captures and radio monitoring, has learned plenty, she said. Endless hours of mucking in the mangroves to simply waiting for hours, Frieze has charted a bird that occupies a sizable front yard of 60-90 acres, but often vanishes for days, weeks, sometimes forever, she said. An average bluejay needs less than five acres to socialize and feed, for instance. She has observed some 40 birds, many making the Ding their permanent home. Because tracking batteries fade quickly, her studies of tagged birds are limited to about 120 hours. But she believes the Mangrove Cuckoo travels between Caribbean islands and south Florida. Many of the birds, however, fly into Charlotte County, jog around a few days and return to the Ding. She believes local travel is related to finding a mate.

She’s watched them consuming mostly frogs and lizards, although like many creatures, the birds will eat most anything, she said. Frieze observed a Mangrove Cuckoo gobble a frog bigger than its head.

“People asked if I got a picture,” she said of the dinner episode. “I didn’tI couldn’t take my eyes off the bird.”

Frieze has worked at the Ding on behalf of the Ecostudies Institute, a west coast research and wildlife advocacy group started in 2001. She expects to author a definitive report in the next year.

Ecostudies and other naturalist groups have tracked the three species of cuckoo in south Florida for about 15 years. Frieze said there has been a nearly 90 percent drop in the number of birds in recent years, “obviously causing concern,” she said.

Development, pollution and other causes are listed as threats. Birds have been studied in federal wildlife preserves looping south and along the Everglades. Her study in the Ding refuge included habitat and other recommendations to help the cuckoo flourish into the next decades, she said, perhaps developing a special corridor to ensure the bird’s survival.

Frieze’s work has been about the down and dirty; crawling through mangrove, boating backwaters in search of her elusive target. One such episode caused the shredding of protective clothing, a heavy dappling of mud. She happened to emerge from the undergrowth as a Ding tour bus passed.

“I was a disaster,” she said. “I thought to myself, ‘you’re a very gross person.’ It was awful and funny.”

One deeper memory of her work lingers; the normally deeper croak of the bird was replaced by a different pitch. Suddenly two juvenile Mangrove Cuckoos appeared. It was especially shocking because researchers have never seen a nest, she said.

The youngsters, she said, were “disheveled” versions of their folks.

“It’s amazing how much we’re starting to learn about them.”

Track Frieze and other Florida research at the Ecostudies Institute Facebook page, or at ecoinst.org.