Upupa epops, aka the Hoopoe. Even the name sounds exotic. Ever since I was a kid flicking through bird books I’d wanted to see one – a gaudy splash of Mediterranean colour and a beak more fitting for a wader than a migrant landbird. But in 25 years of headland-bashing I’d never found one on home shores, although I had regularly encountered them abroad.
All that changed on 06 April 2020. Lockdown restrictions associated with COVID-19 had seen me focussing on walks out from my house in Woodlands, exploring the nearby forests and meadows. As the local nursery was shut, my two-year old was invariably by my side (or snoozing in his carry-pack on my back!).
On that sunny day, my local exercise walk was coming to an end, and I was just a stone’s throw from home. Finn was asleep on my back, snoring quietly. Scarce migrant birds were very much not on the radar, but my attention was suddenly drawn to a flurry of activity around an old dung heap and gateway in a field margin a couple of hundred metres away (fellow birders will be familiar with the feeling that this was one of those pieces of micro-habitat on my local patch that just felt like it might produce something good one day). I raised my bins to see a group of Jackdaws mobbing something on the ground, and was then amazed as a peach, black and white bird erupted onto the top of the adjacent five-barred gate. A Hoopoe!
The Woodlands Hoopoe was first seen being mobbed by Jackdaws
I was even more amazed when, under pressure from the mobbing corvids, it took flight and headed straight for me. I scrambled around for the camera in my shoulder bag and fired off a few shots as it flew right over my head just metres away!
The Hoopoe flew almost directly overhead as it evaded the bothersome Jackdaws!
It then disappeared into a mature Oak tree, but was soon relocated feeding alongside a Song Thrush adjacent to some woodland (on the margin of the same meadow where I’d found a Dutch-ringed White Stork a couple of years earlier!).
The Hoopoe then fed quietly for a while alongside a Song Thrush
The footpath I was viewing from is normally very quiet, with just the occasional dog-walker. But since lockdown had begun, and people were walking out from their homes for daily exercise, it had become a very popular route and there were few moments during the day when there was not a steady stream of walkers, runners and dogs passing by. Consequently, it wasn’t a suitable location to linger safely, and so I reluctantly had to turn my back and leave the bird where it was. I was elated at the find, but a bit disappointed that I wasn’t going to be able to spend longer watching it and getting decent photos. I even spent a bit of time that afternoon scanning the meadows from our back window, but to no avail.
The following day I was coming to the end of a similar walk, a few hundred metres further along the footpath, when I saw the wintering immature Peregrine chasing something along the line of a hedgerow. I raised my bins and to my delight and horror saw that it was the Hoopoe! Fortunately, it evaded the Peregrine but then disappeared again. However, a few minutes later I relocated it near to where it was first found, and this time the annoying corvids were elsewhere.
I managed to quickly get a few shots in nice light as the bird perched on fence posts, in between feeding on the ground in a ditch bordering the meadow. But once again the large volume of people passing along the narrow footpath meant I had to retreat home.
The Hoopoe was often seen preening in between bouts of feeding on the ground
It turns out the Hoopoe was independently seen by Clayton Jones, who lives close enough to the footpath that he was actually able to see it from his garden! It’s an outside possibility that this was the same bird found wintering in the southeast of the New Forest around Badminston Common (apparently last seen in mid-March), but equally the weather at the time it was found was suitable for an overshooting southerly migrant.
Either way, I had fulfilled a childhood ambition, and it was great to have it so close to home!
Hoopoe - what a great bird!