Hoopoe: Part 1. Hoop – ooh!

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The hoopoe. Not just a birder’s bird. It’s the democratic vagrant, truly a bird for all people. What I mean is that this is a bird that requires no explanation, no excuses. Die-hard twitchers of little brown jobs and casual bird appreciators alike join in their desire to see this exotic animal, and its uniqueness must help its popularity: misidentification is, apart from very brief flight views, almost impossible. Even then, there are few other buff pink fluttery butterfly birds with long curved beaks and big round blazing black and white striped wings.

So I’m not going to offer any excuses for driving the length of Hampshire and beyond to see one last week, in the excellently named ‘Climping, West Sussex’. (I think it’s named after what they do to your car if parked inappropriately on the lane – seldom have I visited a village with so many parking restrictions on display, but that’s another discussion.) I’m not going to wax lyrical for paragraph after paragraph on a hoopoe’s appearance, though surely this is a bird that has inspired a thousand words.

Although I have a confession to make: when I first got a good, steady look at one my first reaction was ‘is that it?’ I’d been led to believe that hoopoes were some vibrant shade of orange pink, when really they are less colourful than a jay. Gently treading across an insalubrious gravel parking area, looking somewhat faded, you could be forgiven for thinking a hoopoe belonged there. It almost blended in, with its drab-ish buff coloured breast, and it was a little smaller than a collared dove. But when it did raise its crest, and extend its wing of many stripes, there suddenly was the bird we’d really been waiting for: transformer-like, this quiet beast became something else altogether, something tropical, magical, an alien visitor to an English November day. “Ooooh,” murmured the gathered birders, “Aaaaah”, as if at a daylight fireworks display.

It proceeded to feed for a further 50 minutes, the small crowd transfixed by our collective good fortune. And who knew that hoopoes had such an appetite? It must have swallowed about 20 sizable leatherjackets during that time (by comically throwing back its head, having first speared them dead with a few deft stabs) which, as an observant poster on the West Sussex ornithological society site noted, equates to around 40-50g of food or, in other words, more than half its own body weight. Just goes to show that vagrant birds are very often hungry birds, and who can blame them? (Though I can’t find a reliable estimate of the weight of European crane fly larvae to double check the maths – entomologists?)

We watched it at close range for such a long time that I don’t think there is much, beyond mate and lay eggs, that I haven’t seen a hoopoe do. It foraged, it fed, it rested, it preened. It held its crest flat, it raised it. It extended its wings, it folded them again. It had a little scratch. It nearly got run over, remarkably refusing to fly away on the approach of a local’s car. This was one confiding show-off of a bird. I noticed a momentary expulsion of white, but Richard was disappointed not to get hoopoe on his ‘s**t’ list (Time for a polite rename in its honour: “who-pooed?” list). That would have been a scalp indeed. Unfortunately I did not know a good time to go back to the car and get my camera. Or notebook. (Birders, take note: never be without these two items, for you do not know what is round the next unpromising looking corner!) So you’ll have to be satisfied with other people’s absolutely splendid images (here and here) and this picture of what I promise you is a very special hole – one made by a hoopoe’s long, probing, grub-questing beak!

Triumph! #3 on the wish-list for Mr. Smedley

Speaking of insalubrity, having celebrated with a customary visit to a village establishment (which the hoopoe itself had graced earlier in the week, we believe, perhaps for a refreshing tipple) we headed down to the nearby beach, hoping for a bonus snow bunting. West Sussex is blessed with a number of miles of fairly wild, undeveloped coast, although the beaches are a bit of a wind-swept shingle slog to walk along. Perhaps that’s why anti-clothing members of the community find them usefully peaceful: a local couple warned us of ‘nude activities’ further along the dunes. “We’ve seen some interesting things in our telescope over the years!” she confided with a knowing smile. Minutes later, I saw the head and shoulders of somebody jogging along the beach, and Richard, from his slightly higher vantage point, called out ‘I can see a naked man!’ in a somewhat traumatised voice. Bless him.

No buntings being apparent, just, well, bottoms, and the wind being a touch too ‘Frozen Planet’ for our liking, we beat our retreat. No defeat or accidental unwanted nudity was going to spoil our mood. For did I mention that we ‘found’ the bird? By which I mean Richard and myself were the first people to see this particular hoopoe in about two hours, which doesn’t sound like much, but for us it was a moment of unspeakable heart fluttering joy and pride. I couldn’t say who called it first, but I’ll never forget first picking out the bird’s fluttering form approaching over the cabbage field, and then seeing the unmistakable beak and crest clearly as it flopped into a small tree almost no distance at all above our heads. Or having a moment alone with it as less patient birders round the corner were hastily reassembled.

It would be far too obvious to cover, each week, the rarest species I had seen. Or only a new year or life bird, which would too readily be on my mind. Therefore, I’ve been deliberately left-field with my selections so far by going for some fairly commonplace birds, albeit widely loved ones. But only a prize fool could ignore such a triumphant highlight of this autumn’s birding. Thus I present my delightful, exuberant species of the week: hoopoe.

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