There are some birds that carry with them an indelibly exotic air, conveying a sense of warmer southern climes just with their very presence. The hoopoe, with its incomparable feathery crest, is one such.
In spring, hoopoes migrate from sub-Saharan Africa into much of mainland Europe. Each year a few dozen overshoot and end up in southern Britain, whereupon they usually fly back. In autumn, they make the reverse journey, returning to Africa, with only those in southern Spain remaining to winter as well. Thus, how one arrived in Weston-super-Mare at the end of October is a mystery – but a potential treat for nearby birders!
I arrived at Sand Bay, just north of the town, on Friday morning (my day off!), and heard that the bird was still around. The forecast for fine weather was badly wrong, though, and several of us ended up hunkering down behind an old WW2 shelter as a heavy hail shower passed over – followed by rain. This is when you know birdwatching requires commitment and perseverance!
Eventually however the sky cleared. About eight to ten birdwatchers went on the alert for any sign of the bird, most of us remaining in the same general area, where it had been seen over the past few days. One guy decided he didn’t want to be part of the crowd and wandered off.
It was this guy who, half an hour later, phoned his wife to say that he’d found it, half a mile further south. So the rest of us gathered our stuff and immediately hot-footed it down the bay, slowing up only when we thought we were near. Somebody then glimpsed it disappearing into the undergrowth, so we arrayed ourselves at a closer but still respectful distance. Before long it emerged to feed on a small mossy knoll.
It was a magnificent bird, and most who saw it remained to watch it avidly, as it wandered through the undergrowth, probing the ground for insects and other morsels. It was remarkably tolerant of the humans gathered around, allowing us to have closer views than we expected.
Exactly how it will cope with the onset of winter remains unclear: Weston is hardly north Africa or southern Spain! Migratory birds do have remarkably accurate perceptions of where they are in the world – but this one’s radar seems to have malfunctioned. Unless it flies south soon, one has to hope it can find a warm holiday chalet to shelter under.