The Bird Meme: Day 10

Day 10: Favorite non-American bird


My birding sessions outside the US have not been extensive; they have essentially all been brief forays into the field while traveling for other purposes: helping an in-law move to Canada in 2017, researching Italy for a collaborative novel with Kelly in 2003, guiding a student group through England in 1999, etc. In such locations even the common birds can be lifers, but I have had very little occasion to travel far from my lodgings in search of more obscure or wary birds. Luckily, I had one come to me.

When Kelly and I were traveling Italy, we spent a weekend in one of the most unusual places I've ever visited: the tiny hilltop village of Civita di Bagnoregio. Perched on a mesa of fragile tufa stone, which is gradually eroding away, the city can be reached only by crossing a pedestrian bridge; you'll have to leave your car in the parking lot. (This is not all bad; I got my first Tawny Owl in that parking lot.) The city itself is full of anachronisms, whether it's the multivarious architecture of past centuries or the simple absence of automobiles, and its only lodgings are above the Trattoria Antico Forno. Rick Steves has written about the pleasures of both the city and the Antico Forno, so we used his advice to book a room there. Upon our arrival in mid-afternoon, we encountered our host, Carlo, who promptly made us sit down al fresco and enjoy some wine and a little pasta in red sauce; this welcoming gesture never appeared on our bill, but for a pair of exhausted and overheated tourists, it was a gesture that will never be forgotten. (Sadly, I can find no evidence that Carlo is still operating the business; the website he created some years back appears to have vanished.)

I should note that I gave active birding the old college try. I made a deal with Kelly on our first night there: she could sleep in, but I was going to get up early, take my binoculars, and hike down to the bottom of the valley that surrounds the city--the only outright birding session I would take during our two weeks in Italy. Sadly, the combination of heat, topography, and vegetation made it a fairly hard hike for a fairly limited set of birds. I did (after years of trying) finally get my Eurasian Jay, but that was literally the only new bird I saw during the roughly 90 minutes I spent below Civita. By contrast, I had earlier logged two lifers on our first approach to the bridge (Sardinian Warbler and Eurasian Nuthatch) and picked up another (Blue Rock Thrush) while looking over the rooftops of the city from our room's window. Civita was a place that presented you with birds; it did not encourage you to go out after them.

The best presentation of all, however, came late in the afternoon on our first day there, when we came back to the city from a brief errand into nearby Bagnoregio. We were slogging back across the bridge, marveling at the medieval walls in various stages of ruin around the city, when a most improbably bird lit on a tree right at the edge of the cliff. Its boldly pied wings were what caught my eye, but as soon as I had it in focus, the lovely tawny-pink head and chest also stood out--and then it raised its improbable crest to announce itself as a Hoopoe.

I had been hoping to see a Hoopoe since my first trip to England in 1982, though I knew that they pass through Great Britain only during migration, and only in the very southern portion of the island. Still, I had gamely kept my eyes open every time I was in the bird's preferred habitat, which is "farming districts and open, grazed country," according to my copy of Princeton Field Guides' Birds of Europe. Granted, I didn't watch carefully in more urban European areas--London, Florence, the airport in Munich--but wherever there were crops, I was after a Hoopoe, which the book said "spends much time on ground."

Needless to say, one of the places I was NOT expecting to see a Hoopoe was in a tree. Growing atop a cliff. Next to a crumbling medieval wall. Far from anything flat, or farmed.

But there it was, and even if there had been the slightest doubt, I could not have sustained it after the bird lowered its crest and released its cry into the wind: a plaintive, heartfelt, unmistakable "Oop oop oop."

And with that, the Hoopoe cemented its status as my favorite non-American bird, outdoing other worthy species such as the Red Kite, the Great Green Woodpecker, and the Common Kingfisher. By presenting itself to me in such an improbable manner, with such clarity and distinction, it made me love it. And I would do so even if I didn't know its glorious taxonomic name: Upupa epops. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a bird to be reckoned with.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on September 23, 2017 11:03 AM.

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