Sunday, 26 June 2022

A Hoopoe in Hertfordshire 25th June 2022

On Tuesday last a lady went out to feed some horses in a paddock at her animal rescue and rehabiliation centre that she runs voluntarily with her husband in a village called Hinxton in Hertfordshire.  She noticed a strange, pinkish coloured bird, its back and wings banded black and white and a head with a pointed crest and  long bill, wandering around in the middle of the paddock vigorously digging its bill into the ground, probing for grubs and worms.

Knowing it was unusual she looked it up in a bird book and correctly identified it as a Hoopoe and soon the bird's presence came to the notice of local birders and subsequently the news was broadcast more widely on social media.

Hoopoes are not a very rare bird in Britain, being more a scarce migrant that does not breed here, but their exotic plumage and outlandish profile are sufficiently extraordinary to attract birders and casual admirers alike. They are irregular wanderers to Britain and can turn up anywhere and in unexpected places. I last saw a Hoopoe on someone's front lawn in an upmarket housing estate in Oxfordshire last year and the year before that another in a grass quadrangle on a technology park in Warwickshire.

They have a huge Old World distribution and are found across most of Africa and much of Eurasia from Iberia to China.

Slightly smaller than a Collared Dove, they have a cinnamon pink body, a long decurved bill and when raised, a spectacular fan like crest.When feeding on the ground they wander about probing the ground energetically and endlessly with their long bill, much as a Starling does. Mark Cocker's description of their flight cannot be bettered when he wrote 'In flight the geometric black and white patterns across the upperparts and the slow motion eloquence of its leisured butterfly action render the Hoopoe unmistakeable.'  

Mark (R), my twitching buddy, lives only a half hour's drive away from the horse sanctuary, in the neighbouring county of  Bedfordshire, and had already visited three times as the bird was confiding and allowed him to photograph it well. He eventually persuaded me that it would be good for me to also make a visit, in his company, on this Saturday. Being an enthusiastic and very good photographer Mark wanted to get the best light conditions in which to photograph the Hoopoe and that entailed a 3am start for me to get to his house by 5am and then he would drive us to the small and pleasant village of Hinxton.

The owners of the horse sanctuary, not sure what would happen with news of the bird now broadcast on social media, had initially erected notices banning any birders from entering their yard and paddock.However the paddock could be easily viewed from a footpath that ran along the far side of the paddock.

Due to his previous visits and supplying the owners with two photographic prints of the Hoopoe, Mark was on very good terms  with them and had been granted special permission to enter the yard and even enter the paddock if he wished. The latter would not be wise as it would undoubtedly upset other birders and would only cause conflict so it was not even considered. After speaking further with the owners they agreed to allow other visiting birders onto their property for a small donation, so everyone was happy.

We arrived at the yard at 6am and walked across to the fence guarding the small paddock currently occupied by two rescued horses and although sunny it was, at this early hour, markedly chilly due to a fresh breeze blowing across the yard. We leaned on a gate and scanned the paddock.There was not a sign of the Hoopoe although it had been seen in the late evening yesterday.

The Paddock

A little downcast and tired due to my early start I scanned the paddock inumerable times hoping the Hoopoe would somehow magically appear. There was another paddock adjacent and this too we scanned regularly but of the Hoopoe there was no trace.

For a considerable period we saw nothing apart from swallows that were flying in and out of a small barn in the yard or feeding a couple of juveniles perched on a fenceline. I was feeling the cold due to my tiredness and actively wondering what else I could find to save the day when, in front of us, flying across the paddock to our right, a bird about the size of a woodpecker, flew in a bounding flight from right to left before us and up into a line of tall conifers on the far side of the paddock.It was the Hoopoe.

But that was it for the next forty five minutes. The Hoopoe, wherever it had perched, was invisible and we had to wait and hope it would eventually fly down to feed in its favourite paddock. Again I was almost at the point of losing faith when it did precisely that, its wings flashing black and white zebra stripes as it settled to sit in the sunshine on the short grass of the paddock.

It was in no hurry and I could almost sense it enjoying sitting quietly in the sun. For a couple of minutes it sat on the ground content, before rousing itself to wander erratically around the middle of the paddock probing and digging for worms, leatherjackets and any other invertebrates it could find. 

On seizing a worm or grub it would give the matter some consideration before tossing its prey up between its open mandibles and swallowing it. 

It was always a little distant in the paddock and Mark told me it might come closer as it had done on the other days but there was little sign of this happening.

Then a lucky break as, alarmed by an overflying Red Kite, it flew to perch in a tree and remained there for some time before flying to the far corner of the second paddock off to our right. The corner it alighted in was right by a hedge that bordered the road. No one else seemed to consider this might present an opportunity to get close to it but I went back out onto the road and walked up the road looking for a suitable opening in the hedge. It looked impenetrable  but my luck held as there was one narrow gap, which miraculously, was exactly adjacent to where the Hoopoe was currently feeding 

It could not see me due to the tangle of twigs, branches and brambles around the gap I had squeezed into and fortuitously there was just room enough for a clean line of sight for my camera and lens through  to the field. I clicked away happily as the Hoopoe probed for its living in the short grass 

Surprisingly no one else had recognised this opportunity and after taking as many photos as I wanted I returned to the yard feeling I had done the Hoopoe justice.

I must mention the generosity of Richard and his wife, the owners of the horse sanctuary. Allowing us and other visiting birders onto their property was a welcome enough gesture but to supply tea, coffee and biscuits as well as chairs to sit on was an almost overwhelming act of kindness. I do hope they make some money for their sanctuary in donations from visiting birders.

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