Tuesday 8 December 2015

It's somewhere under the Rainbow 8th December 2015

A Hoopoe, that bird of exotic, terracotta pink plumage, extravagant crest and zebra crossing bands on its wings has for the past week or so been delighting everyone who has made the effort to go and see it near a semi rural but otherwise unremarkable location called Wall Heath, which lies on the outskirts of Kingswinford in the West Midlands.

Despite no reports of it today I took a risk and set off from home, making a one and a half hour journey to Wall Heath on a bright and sunny mid morning.The sky was a pale watery blue as if diluted by all the rain that has fallen lately and pale strands of thin white cloud hovered uncertainly in the blue. As I drove steadily northwards through neighbouring Warwickshire, down roads lined on each side by tall trees now denuded of leaves and exposing all the intricate tangle and convolutions of their bare boughs and slender twigs, I passed through a rural landscape released from the oppressive grey dullness of the last few days and  illuminated by the sunlight into a patchwork of pretty pastel colours. A few trees were stubbornly withholding release of their final vestiges of foliage in the form of sparse yellow leaves, bringing a splash of colour to a predominance of brown. Glossy dark green ivies, now with no competition from fully leafed trees have become prominent, splayed across walls and embracing tree trunks like dark shadows and the rounded, tangled forms of Mistletoe, hidden during the time of burgeoning foliage are exposed high in the bare tops of the tallest trees.

Joining the Motorway my rural idyll down country roads was ended abruptly in a rush of traffic and the onset of a sudden shower, which made me concentrate on my driving as the road surface turned wet and slick. My Satnav soon took me off the busy Motorway, towards Kidderminster and then on another rural switchback of minor roads until I arrived at my destination.

In no time I had parked the black and now, I am ashamed to say, very muddy Audi and set off  through an open gate and up an adjacent hill, hopefully to find the Hoopoe, which was from previous reports, to be found on the other side of the hill. Apparently the steep incline I was walking up, covered in clover and patches of  tawny stemmed longer grasses used to be an old quarry but after it was partially filled in and landscaped it was privately purchased and is currently being fenced into paddocks by the owner, who indeed was present doing the fencing but appeared to be quite sanguine about birders and photographers walking over his private land. There were not that many people and in any case, those like me who had come to see the Hoopoe, made sure we did not block the entrance gate or give any reason for the owner's disapproval.

I breasted the hill and below me was a steep incline down the other side leading to an open bare area, an amphitheatre if you like, and three photographers standing in the middle. of it 

Further right and beyond was the clustered red brick housing of Wall Heath and in front and to the left was the undulating wooded countryside of Staffordshire. I descended the hill and joined the photographers who indicated where the Hoopoe was. It was impossible to see it in the long grass but eventually it flew up and perched near the base of a sapling  tree a little further away from me and that was my first sight of it. Surprisingly well camouflaged, its dull brownish pink body plumage merged into the clutter of dead vegetation, bramble stems and tree bark to good effect until it flew down to the ground when the black and white patterning on its wings and tail made it suddenly conspicuous.

It settled for a few minutes on some open ground and could be plainly seen in all its exotic loveliness. It was about the size of a Blackbird with sturdy short legs and a longish tail. The long decurved bill was counteracted by a slightly less long, barred crest, sticking out from the rear of its head like one end of a pickaxe, the bill being the other.  The dark brown and white bands on its wings stood out in the sunlight and its body plumage took on a stronger shade of brownish pink.

With care it would allow relatively close approach and after an initial wariness soon settled down to commence energetically probing its long bill into the base of grass clumps and the wet muddy ground.

Hoopoes visiting Britain seem to vary in their behaviour. Some I have encountered are extremely wary and nervous whilst others such as this one are exceptionally confiding and tolerant of disturbance. During autumn in  Britain they often turn up in unlikely places and at unlikely times and have been recorded the length and breadth of the land from Shetland to The Isles of Scilly, but their appearances in Britain decline markedly by the end of September. What a Hoopoe is doing in England in December is anyone's guess but surprisingly, past records indicate it is not unusual for them to appear at this time of year.

Too soon, it flew again in a bounding, bouncing, butterfly like flight accentuated by quick closures of its wings, not dissimilar in this regard to a woodpecker but much more buoyant, although less certain in purpose. This time it flew a long way to some trees on the quarry perimeter and then, disappointingly, disappeared over them but in a minute returned and settled on a fence by another part of the old quarry. I watched as it dropped down into some long grass and walked to the area, where I found it busily probing amongst the grass tussocks but very well hidden by the length of the grass for most of the time.

It flew around at regular intervals to favoured areas and we followed it accordingly. I watched as it had a minor spat with a Meadow Pipit, raising its crest like a fan before the pipit flew off and it resumed feeding. As the time slipped by the sky behind me turned ever darker grey, the sun disappeared and a heavy rain shower, driven by the strong southwest wind soaked me for at least ten minutes before the rain clouds were carried onwards by the wind and the sun broke through once again. This caused a rainbow to form before me and as I looked at this phenomenon the Hoopoe flew across, framed by the arcing colours of the rainbow and dropped into the grass and invisibility. A birder standing with me announced "It's flying, it's under the rainbow". Not quite Judy Garland but certainly my pot of metaphorical gold.

One end of the rainbow over Wall Heath
The other end of the rainbow over rural Staffordshire
Eventually the Hoopoe emerged from the grass and fed along a fence line, becoming emboldened and moving out from the thicker and presumably wetter grass onto more open ground, constantly and fussily probing with its long bill into muddy nooks and crannies, before taking time out to sit on the earthy bank in the sun, feathers fluffed up in repose. Five minutes was enough rest before it recommenced its searching and probing.

Two hours in its company had passed all too quickly but now it was time to head for home and I left it, still feeding along the bank, as the light began to slowly fade. 


  1. Hi Ewan
    Clearly the spring Hoopoes passing through Dorset, Sussex are European overshoots coming up from Africa.

    As to the winter individuals, then there must be a reasonable chance they have come from what would be the former USSR. We get Desert Wheatears & the occasional Asian Desert Warblers in late Autumn, so why not the Hoopoes that bred there.

    The problem seems to be trying to prove it. A sat tracker on a few caught winter birds might be needed. When Ive looked into this in the past, there doesnt seem to be a lot of plumage diffs to go on. But maybe somebody of Martin Garner's id skills could do better than me.

    But they would be more hardy living in one of the soviet republics than a southern European bird.

    1. Hi Steve
      Yes I agree with you about the origins of Hoopoes that visit Britain so late in the year. I would think an examination of skins in the BMNH at Tring would be a good start to see if there are any plumage differences between those from Iberia and those from former USSR.We do have here in Oxford Ian Lewington who is very knowledgeable on plumage variations so next time I see him I will ask if he knows of any consistent differences
      Best wishes