1974. That was the year which for Xmas, I asked for (and thankfully Santa delivered), the Collins Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. I read that book cover to cover. Revelled in species I had seen, and excitedly added new species I’d seen as time went on.
But I yearned. I longed… dreamt of being able to see some species which, if sighted in Britain, were only ever going to be in the South of England (nowhere near me). Even then, if these birds appeared, they’d be as accidental visitors if weather had blown them off course during migratory plights, or perhaps their equivalent internal SatNav had somehow gotten messed up. One such bird was a Hoopoe. Pink. And Black and White. Exotic crest. A curved bill which, for a non-wading bird, would surely rival the grandeur of any curlew. To me, a stunningly beautiful and exotic bird. Yet I never thought I’d get the chance to see one and largely dismissed the idea as a flight of fancy. Perhaps even a plight of fancy, if this quest I was ever to embrace. Yet stowed in my memory this bird remained. That colour plate from the Field Guide representing this bird with such vibrance in front of me, yet unattainable, was etched into my mind’s eye.
This week I took a flight on business to Dubai, which, research told me, my chances of seeing a Hoopoe was one I should fancy. I did my research. Located through umpteen birding sites with trip reports the most common places for seeing this bird, to take memories of coloured book plates and transform them in living splendour onto my optic nerve and camera sensor. Could I manage to locate such fanciful beauty?
I was in a position whereby if I did not use carried forward annual leave from last year, then I would forfeit it. And so I took a day’s leave on Thursday, hired a 4×4 vehicle and driver, and proceeded to inform the driver, via a saved Google map with more pins than a seamstress’s cushion, exactly where to go. I, was, blessed. Of the 8 places suitably pinned, I made merely four of them.
The very first place I went to and the very first bird I saw that was in situ (as opposed to being aloft and taking its flight of fancy elsewhere), was a Hoopoe. My goodness. Right in front of me. Lit by morning sun and shadowed by Dubai haze, the latter half from humidity and the balance as residue of recent aggressive sand storms. There it was. PINK. BLACK and WHITE. And with that famed curlew-challenging curved bill that surely belonged to a wader, yet apparently didn’t. I didn’t photograph this bird. I was stupefied. Didn’t position my tripod. Didn’t turn on the camera, even. Seemed disinterested to adjust camera settings et al. I just couldn’t… as I merely was compelled to watch. To ‘Just See’. As if an apparition of pink black and white had appeared before me, casting disbelief upon me, with resultant focus yet an inability to motor function. Able to take in what my visual senses perceived, yet unable to translate that to physical action. The bird was revered by me and dear to me. And I was a deer in the headlights of Dubai’s rising sun and the exotic majesty of this bird.
The Hoopoe took flight, without so much as a by-your-leave. Resplendent. Radial black and white as wings spread and the ground was left behind. And still I watched. As the bird left my field of view. Still gazed. Hoped. Would I see it again? I felt no regret in not photographing the bird. I’d seen it. And that in and of itself was a treat, akin to letting lose a 5 year old in a candy shop, armed with limitless funds and unbridled enthusiasm.
I’d gone to Dubai with a target list of 3 species in particular, though would have been grateful to see birds no matter what kind. I had in mind a Hoopoe, an Indian Roller and Greater Flamingo. Not because I was greedy. But to give my emotions a respite, should my Hoopoe remain a mere colour plate in my mind, after this trip. Seeing either or both of these other two would have been more than substantial compensation, should the Hoopoe not have been found and seen.
I’d no sooner revisited these thoughts when movement next to a nearby tree stirred my gaze towards it. 30 metres away. I saw Pink. And Black and White. I adjusted my tripod accordingly and set my camera up to shoot this beauty. Dressed in camo shirt and pants, with tripod and lens equally camo’d I hoped to near the bird without spooking it. I edged nearer. And nearer. Never letting the viewfinder leave my eye. Less than a metre at a time. And deliberately with foliage behind me, to assist the ‘melding in’ process. My viewfinder started to fill. With my dreams, made real. As the bird attacked the soil with its scimitar-like beak with the vigour of a woodpecker on bark. Digging. Then a stop to listen. A tilt of the head. Active listening. Followed by precise arcing of that natural sword, ever deeper, and with greater intent. Eventually the Hoopoe extricated an insect of considerable size. And held it tight in its beak. I shot this scene avidly, adjusting the camera like crazy, just to be certain I had enough depth of field, a correctly exposed image, all to safeguard that captured moment for all time.
I’d been out of the 4X4 for less than 15 minutes, and yet had travelled a journey of 41 years in that time. The bird flew. With its catch. and I reviewed my LCD camera screen, nervously, eager with anticipation and yet with profound trepidation, fully cognisant that my excitement could easily have caused me to have gotten the camera settings wrong – it had happened before, and I’m sure it has to you too smile emoticon . I let out a gasp. Nay a cry. I recall it now. A vigorous, resounding shout to the avian kingdom. One word. YES!!!
I went on that day and photographed several other Hoopoes. and many other species too, including my 2 species ‘back up plan’ in order to spare the Samaritans my potential call. I found those too, but that’s for a later post. Here’s the Hoopoe, FIM, (Food In Mouth), with a desaturated background from post processing the image – just to allow you to focus entirely on my childhood dream and the beauty of that realisation.
Happy Days Indeed!
Eurasian Hoopoe, Safa Park, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, first dreamed in 1974, dreamt until yesterday and photographed in March 2015.