It’s 8:30 a.m. on Friday, I’ve been up for three hours, and it’s more than 100 degrees outside. I’ve spent the month of June in Saudi Arabia, teaching teenage girls about science and writing.
A report on Saudi teenage girls: When they get on the bus, they sing Adele and One Direction at the top of their lungs.
So the teenage girls were familiar, but a lot about Saudi Arabia was pretty different. The heat, for example. And the birds.
I’m not particularly serious about birdwatching, but I like knowing the names of the things around me. First I noticed pigeons and house sparrows, which you can see anywhere. Then mynas, noisy, flappy birds from southern Asia who have gotten themselves carried to a lot of the rest of the world. I spotted a crow of some sort, then a bird that turned out to be a white-cheeked bulbul.
A few days after we’d arrived, one of my fellow teachers told me about something strange: a tan bird with feathers pointing back from the top of its head, and striking black and white wings. I knew it instantly. Hoopoe!
Hoopoes are nearly a foot long, with a long, downward-curving beak and a spectacular crest that can swing up into a mohawk-like fan. My guidebook to the birds of Britain and Europe tells me it’s “unmistakable.” That guidebook also tells me that I’ve only seen one; in 1998, on a hike in central Turkey. The nine subspecies live everywhere from Senegal to South Africa to Siberia. My mother, who was with me in Turkey, remembers fondly seeing them in Nepal in the 60s. Even their scientific name is cool: Upupa epops. I was jealous of the sighting and hopeful that I might see one myself. And, after several days of careful watching, I did.
Now I know that if I take a long enough walk around the residential compound where I’m staying, I’ll find one or two. This morning I took a bottle of water and my drawing supplies and set out for the duck pond, a mile away. Women are required to wear a floor-length black cloak called an abaya whenever we’re in public in Saudi Arabia, which makes being outside pretty unappealing any time after sunrise—but that rule doesn’t apply on the compound.
I strolled along wide sidewalks, watching for movement. And the hoopoes delivered. One chased another through a yard. Another walked around the base of a tree, probing the ground for prey. At the duck pond, one searched along the edge; later, another—or maybe it was the same bird—appeared on the other side and came closer and closer, finally finding some delectable invertebrate about six feet away from me. It flew away when a myna got too close.
If tomorrow is the first day of Ramadan—it turns out this isn’t known until the night before, and depends on the report of a moon sighting committee—this will turn out to have been my last chance to see a hoopoe. It would be totally rude to take water on a walk during Ramadan, and no water means no walk. But, if the moon hides tonight, I’ll be out again in the morning. Maybe some more hoopoes will come to say hello.
I wrote this snapshot last Friday, June 27; the next day, I flew home to the U.S. (Ramadan held off another day.)