Wildlife: Derbyshire’s colourful drifters

European bee-eater offering its mate a snack

European bee-eater offering its mate a snack - Credit: Archant

Rollers, hoopoes and bee-eaters – three types of bird that you might be surprised to learn have been seen in the county

European bee-eaters, pairing up

European bee-eaters, pairing up - Credit: Archant

Part of my job as a wildlife photographer is to lead five or six trips each year overseas. Some are to cold, midge-infested northern Europe, others to the Americas and some are to the old communist central Europe. It was a trip to Hungary that I returned from last week that gave me the idea for this article.

I had never been to Hungary before and was excited at the prospect of seeing a new country and having the opportunity to work with some of Europe’s most fantastically colourful birds. The group had set a number of targets which varied slightly with each member’s specific interests. However, we were all waiting with baited breath to get to photograph bee-eaters, hoopoes and rollers – three of the most stunning birds you could ever wish to see.

Hoopoe in flight

Hoopoe in flight - Credit: Archant

As we worked through the week (which proved to be a brilliant time), I wondered what the possibilities were of ever seeing any of these birds in Derbyshire. So, on my return out came my now well-thumbed copy of the highly informative, recently published Birds of Derbyshire. I strongly recommend this lavish and well-produced book to everyone who has an interest in the birds of our county.

The results of my research were fascinating and a little surprising. Bee-eaters are easily summed up in one word – stunning. Everything about them is just perfect. They fly with incredible grace and their aerial antics as they hunt bees, wasps and even hornets can fascinate you for hours. And of course there is their plumage, a pallet of colours that gives a kingfisher a solid run for its money.

Hoopoe in Hungary

Hoopoe in Hungary - Credit: Archant

They are described in Derbyshire as a very rare vagrant and have been seen only on a number of occasions. Whitlock reports a couple shot at Stainsby House in 1879 with a possible third bird. More recently two were seen at Elvaston Quarry in July 1991 and one at Edale cross in 1984. In Britain as a whole it is possibly true to say they are increasing in number each year and on a few occasions they have even bred with the now well-publicised Isle of Wight birds, producing eight young from two nests in 2014. They have also bred in County Durham in 2002, in Scotland in 1920 and in Dorset in 2005. I could wax lyrical about them all day. Our experience when photographing them was mesmerising but probably the most asked question is, do they really eat bees and how do they cope with the sting? The answer is that yes, bees do make up over 60 per cent of their diet, and they cope with the sting by bashing the hapless bee hard on the ground or on a tree branch.

If we thought bee-eaters were colourful, our first glimpse of a roller made us question whether it was even more exotic and colourful. I personally don’t think it is but rollers are brighter and the electric blues in their plumage, particularly when they fly, almost hurt the eyes they are so bright. Rollers are about the same size as a crow and are garrulous birds that can best be described as feeling really ‘in your face’. Couples can be very noisy and they seem to be always quarrelling with other pairs. However, there is a soft side to them and, like bee-eaters, the male tenderly presents a delicious food prize to his partner as part of their courtship. This may simply precede a bout of mating, which is vigorous and colourful as the male lifts his wings to display the stunning blues.

A pair of rollers mating

A pair of rollers mating - Credit: Archant

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In Derbyshire rollers are also very rare vagrants and have only been seen here a handful of times. Whitlock mentions one near the River Derwent in 1856. More recently one hung around Morley for a day in July 1984. I don’t think there have ever been any reports of their breeding in Britain.

The last of the trio is the hoopoe. This is not perhaps as colourful as the other two birds but when they returned to their nest where we had a hide and lifted their amazing crest, our hearts were won.

A pair of rollers

A pair of rollers - Credit: Archant

On our trip we could hear hoopoes constantly. Their name arises from their haunting call, which drifted across the plains where we were stationed. Hoopoes breed earlier than bee-eaters and rollers and all the ones we watched had large chicks in nests built in stone cairns right out on the wide-open grassy expanses. These cairns are made by the wardens of the national park to attract hoopoes to breed in areas where there is plentiful food but a lack of suitable holes in trees. Oddly the rollers were virtually all breeding in nest boxes and the erection of these had boosted the local roller population incredibly.

Hoopoes are not as infrequent visitors to Derbyshire as bee-eaters and rollers and are described as ‘rare vagrants’ (rather than ‘very rare’). Up to 100 birds are seen annually in Britain and 26 birds have been seen in Derbyshire since the 1950s. In 1988 five birds were seen. Hoopoes even breed occasionally in Britain; the best year recorded was 1977 when four pairs bred across the southern half of our islands. They breed regularly in northern France and, as with bee-eaters, if our summers continue to get warmer we can look forward to a slow increase in breeding birds over the next few decades.

I have lead many trips abroad to photograph wildlife but I don’t think I have ever been on one that allowed me to work with three such incredibly beautiful species of birds all of which have appeared in Derbyshire, although admittedly only as rare vagrants.