Guest article by Nick Baker, Naturalist and TV Presenter
What is it about the Ring Ouzel I find so beguiling? I have often had this thought while sitting on a Dartmoor hillside getting well and truly pummelled by the elements, either being smashed by wind driven sleet and hail, or simply roasted in my own skin. I put myself through all of this for the chance of a glimpse of a silver winged beauty…
Working on Ring Ouzel
I’ve got to know this bird and its habits on an intimate level, spending the last four summers working as part of a RSPB project to monitor and understand their productivity in the last and most southerly breeding population in the UK.
An uncommon sight
Even before Ring Ouzel started to decline in range and numbers (range size has declined by 43% in last 40 years) it was never a common bird, and even in areas considered hotspots it takes a certain amount of determination and luck to see and experience one. That it lives out most of its life in some of the toughest environments in Europe makes it kind of exclusive, plus, it so strongly resembles the Blackbird that a distant glimpse of one, by the untrained eye, can be misidentified and ignored.
An elusive summer visitor
The Ring Ouzel is our only summer visiting thrush, arriving from its wintering grounds in the Atlas Mountains of north western Africa to breed here on high ground, although on passage it can turn up literally anywhere. However, it is only during the breeding season, from late April to June, that you truly get to know this bird.
It is also known as the Mountain Blackbird, and you can see why when a male takes to its lofty throne - a craggy, windblown, upland, sheep-walk above the tree line - and tosses his tri-syllabic notes to the gales, atop a lichen encrusted boulder.
More elegant that its cousin
If a good view is afforded then this connoisseur’s bird is unmistakable. Ring Ouzel is a little longer and more upright than its close cousin the Blackbird, however, these details pale into insignificance when the plumage is seen.
The adult male has a white gorget (white crescent on the upper breast) that ‘pops right out’ in contrast to the darker body feathers, the female is a more variable affair, sometimes with a bright gorget, sometimes with barely anything at all (this often depends on the age of the bird, the older the bird, the brighter and more defined the collar). While the crescent takes the eye, the body plumage of both genders is just as lovely, a scaled filigree of silver in the male and lighter brown in the female trims most of the body feathers.
It is an elegant, refined and subtle bird that makes you work hard for a glimpse, and even then reserves the right to deliver. As a species of altitude, and one that is of conservation concern, it can tell us a lot about the state of our less visited and less-understood upland environments.
New research to go 'Beyond the maps'
The Ring Ouzel is one of a number of species of the British uplands undergoing marked range contraction and population decline. Part of BTO's 'Beyond the maps' research programme will focus on these species, using in-depth analyses of Atlas data to understand what aspects of the changing upland environment are responsible for these declines. The research that Nick describes will be invaluable in linking the large-scale insights from Bird Atlas data with the fine-scale requirements of individual pairs to give a comprehensive picture of what Ring Ouzel need.
How can you help?
Find out more about our major programme of research and make a donation to the 'Beyond the maps' appeal.