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Eurasian Hoopoe in the Northern Territory

By atulloch February 27, 2014
Eurasian Hoopoe. Photo by Birds of India photographer Rajiv Lather

Eurasian Hoopoe. Photo by Birds of India photographer Rajiv Lather

Identification of the Eurasian Hoopoe (Upupa epops) is unmistakable; it is surely one of the world’s most exotic looking bird species. Slightly bigger than a Rainbow Bee-eater, their striking pinkish brown body contrasts wonderfully with their black and white wings. Other features include a long black down-curved bill and a long pinkish warm-brown crest. The crest is perhaps its most distinctive feature – a bit like a Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (Cacatua galerita) – when excited they raise it, giving the bird the appearance of having a Mohican crest. Despite this, Eurasian Hoopoe can be superbly camouflaged while foraging on the ground in its preferred dry habitats. Often what gives the bird away is its call, from which they get their name – typically a trisyllabic oop oop oop (sometimes two notes). Like its Latin name upupa, the English name is an onomatopoeic form of this distinctive call. They are also known for taking sun and dust baths, spreading out their wings and tail low against the ground and tilting their head up.

All this adds up to one of the world’s most iconic birds. Not surprisingly it was revered in ancient Egypt, and it was considered a symbol of virtue in Persia. It is also Israel’s national bird. Here’s a bit of a rundown about this special bird. Most authorities place Hoopoe in with the Coraciiformes (along with the kingfishers, bee-eaters, rollers and woodhoopoes), while other classify them as Upupiformes (along with woodhoopoes). Some classification schemes list Eurasian (or Common) Hoopoe as the only member of its family, although others elevate the Madagascar subspecies (U. e. marginata) to a full species – with its distinctly different vocalizations – and some also treat the resident African form U. e. africana as a separate species – it has a richer cinnamon colour above and lacks the subterminal white band in the crest. Aside from those, historically there was only one other accepted separate species – the giant and flightless Saint Helena Hoopoe (Upupa antaios). Known only from bones, it lived on the island of St Helena in South Atlantic Ocean until its extinction sometime in the sixteenth century. Although the exact causes of its disappearance are unknown, typically with these large flightless island-based birds, it was presumably hunted to extinction by people and introduced predators.  In terms of range, year round Eurasian Hoopoe occur along the north coast of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, sub-Saharan Africa, and extend east into India, China and south-east Asia. In summer, their breeding range extends north to Europe and north-east into Korea and Japan. In winter, the higher latitudes migrants move south into the year-round range along the northern coast of Africa, in the Arabian peninsula, throughout sub-Saharan Africa and from India east to the coast of China.

The Eurasian Hoopoe is, therefore, very much a birders bird, being (from personal experience) one of those birds you dream about seeing. For instance it easily fits into many birders top 10 ten most sought-after bird species. So what happens when a bird overshoots its normal migration range and lands on the Australian continent – turning up on our own doorstep, so to speak? The first Hoopoe known to do this was a juvenile bird found near the Roebuck Plains Roadhouse in north-west WA on the 10th November 2011. It started a bit of twitching bonanza, with many Australian birdwatchers traveling as much as 5,000 km just to see it! A few completely circumnavigated continental Australia. The number of people who twitched the Eurasian Hoopoe probably wasn’t as many as the number of people who went to see the Grey-headed Lapwing (Vanellus cinereu) in 2006 – probably Australia’s most twitched bird – however, in terms of travel, it was far easy to see, being found in Burren Junction in northern New South Wales.

So what happens when a second Eurasian Hoopoe turns up in Australia? Nothing it appears. It was first seen and photographed by Tim Wethers on February 6, 2014 in Galiwin’ku, a township on Elcho Island in the Northern Territory. However this time there were no hordes of birders scrambling to see it. In fact it seems no one went to see it. Why? Was it because all the twitchers who are normally willing to travel large distances, and to spend large amounts of money to see one bird, had already twitched the bird in WA? Wouldn’t you expect a few people, perhaps a few local Territorians, to look for it? Unless I’m wrong – and I’m more than happy to be corrected – it appears not. I’m not sure what the answer to this question is? Perhaps it was just too difficult to get to the island; it’s located at the southern end of the Wessel Islands group in the East Arnhem Land 550 km north-east of Darwin. So access to this areas can be very difficult. Perhaps the bird just didn’t hang around long enough to gain twitchable momentum? It is a real pity. Elcho Island is said to be spectacular, being the inspiration for the song ‘My Island Home’. To make up for this, one day I promise that I will travel to Elcho Island and perhaps, just perhaps, I might see one of the world’s most iconic species, a Eurasian Hoopoe.

Tim Dolby is just about to release a new field guide on Finding Australian Birds; published by CSIRO, and due out in May. See http://www.publish.csiro.au/pid/6518.htm

Traveling in Arnhem Land requires a permit that you can apply for through the Northern Land Council.

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