Wildlife: Ring Ouzel, the High Peak's 'mountain blackbird'
10:35 20 May 2011
I wake up every morning from March to June listening to the greatest vocalist of the bird world, my garden blackbird. I imagine a few of you might argue with this point and say, What about the song thrush or robin, or even, if we could listen to it easily, a nightingale? However, I still contend that the flutings of blackbirds are pure music and a joy to hear.
As I listen every morning I often wonder about the blackbirds song. It is certainly loud, strident and musical, but what is it about and why is it like this? Our blackbirds have a much rarer cousin that inhabits a quite different world, the windswept moors of the High Peak. This bird is sometimes referred to as the mountain blackbird but is more often known by its proper name of ring ouzel.
Ring ouzels are only with us for the spring and summer, arriving from Africa in March and returning to sunnier climes in the early autumn. They are easy to recognise. The male is particularly splendid. He resembles a blackbird at a distance but is easily separated from his woodland relative by a wide, bright white blaze across his chest. His bill, on closer inspection, is not so yellow and his breast feathers are more subtle with a slightly warmer fringe to them. His mate is brown, just like the blackbird, but with binoculars you might notice that its chest is paler, like a poor imitation of the males. As she ages, and some can live up to four or five years, her breast feathers become paler and more noticeable.
Ring ouzels like to sing and the male will perch atop any structure, usually a lone rowan tree, to sing his heart out. The song is nothing like a blackbirds. It is a short mournful piping that somehow seems weak and ineffectual in this huge landscape. Why should its song be so different to a blackbirds? On thinking about it, I realised that other moorland birds that dont sing from the air have similar songs. Golden plovers, such visually gorgeous birds, also have a piping, mournful call, and they have another feature in common with the ring ouzels song the call can be hard to pin down. I noticed this spring, as I sat in a hide near a ring ouzels nest, just how hard it is to locate the male bird when he is singing. One morning I was scanning the horizon a few hundred metres away trying to see him as I could hear him singing somewhere. The call seemed so weak I was convinced he was a long way off, but when I glanced to my right he was only 15 metres in front of me. At other times Ive been able to hear a bird that was hundreds of metres away and the song didnt seem to be much quieter. It is almost as if a ring ouzel has the ability to throw its voice like a ventriloquist a skill it shares with golden plovers. In the end Ive decided that this is something to do with living in such a vast, open habitat where the ability to be noticed audibly over long distances without drawing attention to your exact location has obvious advantages. There are certainly no trees to hide in!
Ring ouzels share many nesting features with blackbirds. The nest is tucked away, not in a bush or hedge but under a tuft of bracken or heather on the side of a clough. It is made of and lined with grasses and looks just like a blackbirds. They usually lay four eggs, occasionally five, and these again closely resemble a blackbirds, though the brown markings on the greenish background are often a little heavier. Ring ouzels can have two broods during the summer and choose a different nest for their second lot of chicks. They dont tend to nest close to each other. I imagine this is because the food supply on the moors is not as rich as in a woodland or garden. Last year though I did find two ring ouzels nesting within 500 metres of each other. I had no idea that the second pair existed until I witnessed a skirmish between the two males. Watching carefully, I eventually managed to follow a female back to her nest in a bracken-filled clough on the side of the heather moor.
Ring ouzels feed mainly on insects during the nesting season and they have become scarcer in the Peak because their habitat has been changing. The grassy areas that are scattered across the moor are vital for food and these are in decline. The ratio of heather to bracken is also changing and is in part responsible for the changing bird numbers on moorlands. This fact has been realised and many agri-environmental schemes today will compensate farmers if they reduce the number of sheep held on the Peaks uplands.
Many people are not aware of ring ouzels and I suspect that while they are not common, they are often overlooked or dismissed by walkers as blackbirds. The white blaze of the male should be a good way of identifying one, and if you hear a short piping song try scanning the top of any rowan tree or telegraph pole for a white-breasted mountain blackbird. You wont be disappointed.
Please Note: Ring Ouzels are now red-listed (the highest conservation priority) so shouldnt be disturbed, particularly if nesting.