Monday, December 5, 2011

3 People, 50 Hours, 4,474km, One Bird - Eurasian Hoopoe near Broome

In early November this year, the Australian twitching community went into overdrive with news that a Eurasian Hoopoe (Upupa epops) had turned up near Broome. Eurasian Hoopoes occur widely across Europe and Asia. The Broome bird has been identified as the strongly migratory race saturata, which breeds mostly in east Asia (Japan, Siberia, South China etc.) and migrates south to winter, making it the most likely candidate for vagrancy to Australia. Nonetheless, most Aussie twitchers would probably admit that the species had not figured highly on their list of likely new birds for Australia.

Eurasian Hoopoe at Roebuck Roadhouse near Broome.

The bird was found on the 10th November hanging around near the Roebuck Roadhouse, 30km out of Broome, by Kim Onton, Chris Hassell and Marten Hulzebosch. Being a first record for Australia, and a particularly charismatic species to boot, it was no surprise that news of the sighting sent twitchers into something of a frenzy, as many raced to work out the feasibility of a mad dash to see the bird. Fortunately for those that have made the trip, the bird has generally remained in situ since the initial sighting (still present Saturday 3rd December), although it hasn't always been easy to locate and a few people dipped several times before connecting.

The Broome Eurasian Hoopoe feeding up!

Possibly one of the more amazing/ridiculous (delete as appropriate!) plans to see the bird was hatched by a group of Perth twitchers keen to see the bird, but unable to justify the expense of flying to Broome. The result? The Great Hoopoe Weekend Twitch, as told by Bruce Greatwich...

"3 people, 50 hours, 4,474 km, one Bird – This is the short story of the Great Hoopoe Weekend Twitch by myself, Nathan Waugh and John Graff.

At precisely 12:59pm, Thursday 10th November 2011, an innocent statement from Graffy came through to myself and Nathan during email conservation about other birdy things. It read, “BTW - Anyone seen Jeff Davies' post to B-Aus - Hoopoe near Broome!!! What's going on there?!”. At 12:53pm, Jeff Davies had posted on Birding-Aus that a Hoopoe had been sighted at the Roebuck Plains Roadhouse, near Broome. This represents the very first time this bird has ever been recorded in Australia, a migratory vagrant that has supposedly gotten lost en route to Africa.

And so the seed was planted in our brains. It wasn’t until Nathan put forward the crazy proposition of driving up and twitching it that any of us even seriously considered going to see it, but the pull of the Hoopoe was strong. Flying was too expensive for us, but if we split the costs of petrol between three of us it would be far cheaper, and if we shared the driving we would get plenty of sleep. With some strong encouragement from Stuey Ford, we decided if there were confirmed sightings the next day, we would go for it.

The next day, Friday morning, all three of us were having doubts - surely not we said, surely it wont stick around and surely we’re not going to drive to Broome to see it. At 9:36am Nathan rang the service station where the Hoopoe was hanging around and got told there were birders watching it right now on the front lawn. That was all the info we needed, and we committed to trying to twitch it!

So after a quick rendezvous at the Ecologia office in Perth, we were heading out of the city by 4pm Friday arvo, charged up for the 22 hour, 2,237km trip to Broome. With plenty of conversation about Hoopoes and birding in general, the time passed quickly. A quick check of the internet from my phone while in Port Hedland revealed the Hoopoe was still present Friday afternoon, seen by other twitchers who had flown in from all over Australia to see it. The final leg of the journey, Port Hedland to Broome, was torture. How could we explain and justify this to our family members if we dipped?? An hour from our destination things were getting really intense. Massive thunderstorms were building towards where we were heading - this wasn’t good news, a tropical downpour was certainly not good news for Hoopoe watching! We were in a race against time. Passing the 10km marker to the Roebuck Plains Roadhouse a sense of anxiety and nervousness swept over us. Surely it has to be there? What if it's not there? How are we going to spread out and look for it?

As we pulled in to the roadhouse in the car, we slowly pulled over in to a parking bay when Graffy yelled “There it is!”. And there, no more then 30m away on the grass in front of us, was the first ever Hoopoe recorded in Australia. A massive sense of relief, joy, happiness, achievement (and a little bit of exhaustion) swept over us! We proceeded to get out of the car and watch the Hoopoe through our binos and Nathan's scope. I pulled out my camera and rattled off a few shots. What a crazy but amazing looking bird it was, so different to anything you would expect in Australia. We watched it for a while foraging in the shade in the grass for insects. Its behaviour was similar to an ibis, walking around probing the grass with its long bill.

The Eurasian Hoopoe as we first saw it, sheltering from the strong tropical sun.

About this time Richard Baxter of Australian twitching fame rocked up. He had already seen it, but was keeping an eye on it for a friend who had been in Broome for two days but was yet to see it! (How lucky were we to see it straight away?!). About 10 minutes later a crow flushed the Hoopoe off the lawn and into the bush surrounding the roadhouse and we lost sight of it. We decided to head in to Broome and do some birding around the place. We dipped on the Semi-palmated Plover that was reported to be hanging around, and headed back to the Roebuck Plains roadhouse to relax for 30 minutes, and hopefully see the Hoopoe again.

No further sightings of the Hoopoe, so after a couple of free mangoes off the side of the road, we headed off for the leisurely Sunday drive back to Perth. A quick stop just outside the roadhouse to scout the Roebuck Plains got me a couple of lifers in Oriental Plover and Little Curlew, then the long driving haul set in. Plenty of driver rotation got us through the night and as adrenaline of the past day or two was wearing away, we were all looking forward to getting home. At 6 pm we pulled in to my driveway, and the Great Hoopoe Weekend Twitch was over."

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