Ear To The Ground: Hoopoe hops its way to Tod garden

Our new visitor, the Hoopoe
Our new visitor, the Hoopoe

The latest feathered treasure to fly in to the upper Calder Valley is a Hoopoe.

The owners of Incredible Farm (Mellings Farm), at Sourhall Road in Todmorden let the world know through Birdguides and Facebook on April 13.

There is a picture of it on Facebook. They also kindly allowed us in to the farmyard to get a sight of it but the day had turned very cold and windy and not much was moving except some Greenfinches and Chaffinches, not forgetting a big flock of my favourite laying hen – Black Rocks.

It’s not the first record for Calderdale; I have a memory of two others over the years, but it is a rare bird generally in Britain. They arrive here in April probably as overshooting migrants heading for breeding sites in northern France. I found one in midsummer in Brittany.

They are in the Kingfisher family and nest in holes as they do. They are, if anything, even more spectacular than a Kingfisher, being a pinkish-brown with strong black and white marks across the back. They have a long curved bill, a resplendent crest on the head and their whole plumage is softly luxuriant. They are slightly bigger than a Mistle Thrush, and much more flamboyant. In flight their broad wings give an impression of a huge black and white moth. Their name imitates their call, in English as well as Latin Upupa epops. I regret I’ve never heard their call despite seeing them in France, Spain and India.

This follows in the wake of several sightings of White Storks in the river meadows around Brearley and Luddenden Foot. A woman I met whose house overlooks told me there were two one day! These are pure white, with black wing tips and bright red beaks and legs.

Birders say they are probably wanderers from Harewood House in Wharfedale, where there is a bird garden you can visit and apparently a free flying colony, but they are no less welcome for that. Someone might encourage a pair to breed in Calderdale by erecting a platform on a high post – traditionally redundant cart wheels are used for this in Spain.

I wrote about and brought you a picture of the Eider drake that visited the canal at Pexwood recently. He was amazing close up, and fortunately was not sick or injured; just needed a bit of a rest and maybe a feed before he flew off to the coast. They dive for shellfish, and the canal here and in many places is well stocked with freshwater mussels, though no-one reported seeing him dive. When the canal was drained for repairs recently at Mytholmroyd you could see them in the mud, and the trails they left as they hauled themselves along to keep up with the receding water.

The star birds so far though were the four bee-eaters that my friends Portia and Brian found near Pexwood in 2011. They are featured in the latest Bird Report published by the Yorkshire Naturalists Union. Even their multi-coloured feathers, long tails and beaks, weird “quilp” call and flocking habit probably don’t enamour them to bee-keepers, but if it’s any reassurance, they also eat other large insects. There probably aren’t enough large insects here to support them regularly. This could be why we now get so few Cuckoos, though they have been heard and seen this year already in Luddenden Dean, at Mytholmroyd Scout Wood and Shibden Valley, Halifax.

One place that used to be reliable for Cuckoos was the picturesque forked valley at Blake Dean above Hardcastle Crags, where children love to picnic on the island in the stream there. My kids when they were little always requested to go to “Baked Bean”. I’m sure they weren’t the first. It is probably debatable why we get fewer birds like Cuckoos than in years gone by, but one theory is that the overgrazing by sheep has a detrimental effect on the vegetation, and hence the insect life.

Some farms now are introducing different regimes with a mix of cattle and fewer sheep. I noticed hill cattle the other day near Ramsden Farm above Walsden, where the land is being managed to encourage more Nature such as the fast-disappearing Twite. We didn’t see any the day we were there, but there was a pair of Reed Buntings flitting along a wet ditch with long herbage – just the sort of pace to encourage them to nest and for dragonflies to breed for hungry migrants to feed on as they pass through.

Who needs aliens from outer space, when we have all these exotic visitors?