Ringing a Hoopoe

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I pull into the parking area of the field centre near the small town of Sorbas in Almería province and as I get out I see a figure approaching with a sense of urgency from an area of shrubs. He has tousled hair, a greying beard, a blue zipped jacket and trousers tucked into his socks. Let’s refer to him as RB. I rang him yesterday so he is expecting me. With an open and friendly face he hails me and, almost as he hurries past, he says: “I’ve got a Sardinian Warbler.” I don’t immediately see it but then notice a frayed white cord around his neck. The cord holds a thick wire that has been bent up and down several times. He later tells me that he made it from an old coat-hanger so that he can hang from it, as necessary, several small cloth bags, each containing a captured bird. One such bag with a drawstring is there now. Ah, so that’s where the Sardinian Warbler is. I trot after him to the courtyard of the field centre, where he has a table spread with the paraphernalia of the ringer: recording forms, rulers, a single eye magnifying glass, small digital scales and so on.

He sits down and, deftly opening the bag, puts his hand in and carefully brings out a small bird, held gently but firmly in a way that speaks of long experience. The Sardinian Warbler is a female which has 2 colour rings on the right leg and a metal plus colour ring on the left leg. I ask if it was him who ringed it originally. “Yes,” he says, “they don’t move far, but it is part of my colour ringing program here.”He looks back through his sheets of records and sees that he first caught it on 12th September 2022, almost seven months ago. Today is 25th April 2023. He carefully decants it head first into a cardboard Saxa So-lo Salt tub (other brands of cardboard tub are available) which he places on a small digital scale. The bird weighs 12.1 grams, from which he concludes that it has probably laid all its eggs by now. Last September it weighed 11.8 grams.

He holds it in his palm so that its breast is uppermost and blows gently. The feathers part and a large brood patch is revealed, further evidence that it is incubating eggs. The whole process takes less than five minutes, then he walks off to let it fly back into its life.

A little later we check several more nets. Most are empty – it’s past the main spring migration period and the continuing drought and heat seems to be affecting both bird activity and movement through the area – but in one there is a Hoopoe. As he approaches the net he actually sees two Hoopoes but one ‘bounces out’. He deduces that the second one came to see what was happening to the first. The second one is gone in an instant, in that distinctive way they have, a soft, rounded flight like a huge black-and-white butterfly.

The mist nets are of various lengths and have a depth of about six feet. Ranged from top to bottom, they are gathered in with horizontal pockets across their whole width, such that any bird flying into the net will likely fall into the pocket immediately below. RB carefully extracts the Hoopoe and puts it into a cloth bag. We head back so he can process it. Various clues, including nuances of plumage such as the heavy streaking on the flanks and breast colouration, tell him that it’s a female. There are signs of moulting, with two new tail feathers only partially grown, probably from accidental loss. It weighs 59.7 grams. I leaf through his well-thumbed copy of Identification Guide to Birds in the Hand by Laurent Demongin, the ringer’s bible. It’s a volume full of astonishing detail, or so it seems to an amateur birder like me. In it I discover that the weight range for a female Hoopoe is 55-80 grams, so this one is at the bottom end of the scale.

A sheaf of papers held with a bulldog clip and headed ‘Listado de los Modelos Recomendados de Anillas por Especies’ could tell him which size of ring is appropriate for this bird but such information has long been stored in his head. A ring is selected and deftly closed with pliers over the bird’s leg. Blowing the breast feathers apart allows him to judge the amount of fat and muscle, more data to be recorded. He also notices that the bird is losing its breast feathers, a sure sign it is in breeding mode and the other bird at the net was probably the male.

In the hand, a Hoopoe is just as magical and improbable a bird as when you first see it in the wild. The university students who are with us today are agog at this amazing creature. They have their phones out and their necks craning to store this moment into various memories. Once it has been processed, RB asks Liz, one of the members of staff who has been saying all week that  her favourite bird is the Hoopoe, if she would like to release it. “Hold it like this,” he says, “you won’t hurt it.” Her eyes widen as she takes the bird and walks the few yards out of the courtyard to where the landscape of gentle slopes and olive trees stretches away. A small crowd of students follows, phones at the ready. She raises her hands and, to a spontaneous round of applause, the bird flies off, its wonderful piebald pattern flashing as it does so. It’s gone in a couple of seconds and it leaves us wondering: did that really happen? Were we really that close to a Hoopoe, that scimitar bill, that eccentric crest, those fabulous barred wings?

The field centre we are at was founded in the late 1980s and RB has been ringing birds here since 2008. He explains to me that at the end of the year all his records go to his group’s Ringing Co-ordinator, where they are collated and checked before being submitted to a central database in Madrid. A new ringing licence is not issued unless the data is approved by the ringing office. In answer to a question from one of the students, he says that broadly speaking, only one ringed bird in several thousand is recovered or recaptured, and this can depend on the size of the bird and whether it is a resident or migrant. This nevertheless amounts to a huge amount of useful data from which all manner of conclusions can be drawn in the challenge to better understand bird populations and movements.

RB has been up for a long time already. His alarm went soon after 4 a.m. Before five o’clock he was setting the nets in the dark, checking there was water in the specially built pools and switching on the MP3s with a range of bird calls to try and entice them in.

It’s nine o’clock now. We’ve had a coffee and it’s time to ‘close the nets’ to ensure that no birds are caught inadvertently. We go round each net in turn. RB has a pole with a hook, using which he pulls the nets so they are gathered, flips them round and round to ensure they are simply held in a single tight line with no chance of avian mishap, then the centre of each net is secured by a ‘storm guy’, a long cord wound around several times and anchored to a nearby bush or tree. The MP3s are turned off and collected until the moment in the early hours of tomorrow when, entirely unbeknown to the rest of the world, this energetic figure, this combination of scientist and enthusiast, will be out opening the nets again.

Article: Kevin Borman
Photos: Kevin Borman

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: The views expressed in articles are those of the authors, and are not necessarily those of the Society.

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