No lockdown for Ring Ouzels

Vic Fairbrother, Ken Hutchinson and the Updale Natural History Recorder

We have been studying Ring Ouzels on the North York Moors for over 20 years. This has involved intensive fieldwork every week throughout each breeding season, commencing before the birds return from North Africa in order to establish first arrival dates. Courtship behaviour, nest building, egg laying, the hatching and fledging of chicks and levels of predation have all been carefully monitored. Simple and complex song was also recorded and analysed and the presence of a local dialect established. Conservation measures were identified and implemented. Although our intensive study had ended, we had hoped to continue to maintain a general overview of the Ring Ouzel’s foothold on the North York Moors again this year.

An early indication of problems ahead came when the annual meeting of the UK Ring Ouzel Study Group in Penrith on 21 March this year was cancelled in view of the imminent pandemic lockdown. Shortly afterwards, the BTO and RSPB suspended all survey work, nest monitoring and bird ringing and it became clear that our own observations were also going to be severely affected.

Although our ability to monitor them this year has been severely disrupted, this remarkable bird’s annual struggle for survival has continued on our doorstep.

It was sunny with a cold wind in Rosedale on 21 March and with travel about to be severely curtailed, it was cheering to watch Curlews and Lapwings back on their upland breeding grounds but even more special was the sight of two Wheatears which are often the first migrants to arrive back in the dale. Sudden chacking at Nab Scar then revealed the exciting sight of the first Ring Ouzel of the year to return to Rosedale from their winter quarters.

Wheatear, Rosedale. Copyright Vic Fairbrother, Ken Hutchinson and the Updale Natural History Recorder.

As more ouzels gradually returned to local sites, small groups of ouzels (presumed to be passage birds i.e. migratory birds on their way to somewhere else) were also reported from a number of locations during much of April.

With restrictions still at a high-level, the permitted daily exercise walks provided a real treat on 29 April, when a female Ring Ouzel was observed gathering nesting material at Sturdy Bank and taking it to a suspected nest site whilst the male was singing nearby. A week later, the female flew into this suspected nest site where she remained and was presumed to be sitting on eggs.

Ring Ouzel, Rosedale. Copyright Vic Fairbrother, Ken Hutchinson and the Updale Natural History Recorder.

During the next few weeks, territorial behaviour by two more pairs of ouzels was also reported from Reeking Gill and Reeking Gill South and with the easing of restrictions in mid-May, slightly more detailed monitoring was enabled.

An increasingly rare sight and an experience to treasure occurred on 27 May, when a pair of Cuckoos flew in towards Reeking Gill, the male calling beautifully. When he came to the south end of the embankment a male ouzel promptly chased it away. A few minutes later the male Cuckoo returned to land on a rock just inside the entrance to the gill. As walkers approached, he flew higher up the gill to land in the rowan tree opposite a first brood nest site, at which the second male ouzel immediately chased it down and out of the gill.

Cuckoo, Rosedale. Copyright Vic Fairbrother, Ken Hutchinson and the Updale Natural History Recorder.

Three days later two female ouzels were being closely watched at Reeking Gill. A male and at least two fledglings could be seen below the first brood nest site high on the north east side when one female flew up the gill and straight into a new and presumed second brood nest site, almost opposite the first brood nest site and close to where the Cuckoo had been evicted on 27 May. To our great surprise the second female then gave her nest site away by flying straight in to heather just outside the south east entrance of the gill and in the vicinity of the other Cuckoo altercation. The discovery of these new nest sites explained the agitated behaviour of the two male ouzels towards the Cuckoo a few days earlier. Later, the two male ouzels were heard counter-singing.

The welcome easing of restrictions eventually enabled eight nestlings to be fitted with BTO rings at Sturdy Bank and Reeking Gill. The three nests here and the one at Sturdy Bank all fledged young but a nest at Reeking Gill South was predated. Fledged young were also seen at Bank Top, Hob Crag and Blakey on the west side of Rosedale, along with a number of rather inconclusive ouzel sightings. In view of the many constraints it is almost certain that other breeding attempts went undetected in the study area this year.

Rosedale. Copyright Vic Fairbrother, Ken Hutchinson and the Updale Natural History Recorder.

Ring Ouzels switch to eating berries as they prepare for migration and during our study, we had become concerned at the lack of regeneration among the scattered rowan trees in the study area.

The Ring Ouzel’s remarkable link with the industrial heritage in Rosedale was recognised during the Land of Iron Landscape Partnership Scheme, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. We were delighted when as part of a number of biodiversity initiatives a small-scale tree planting project was developed in an attempt to provide a sustainable supply of rowan berries here.

Land of Iron Landscape Partnership Scheme logo banner

Mature Rowan Trees, Rosedale. Copyright Vic Fairbrother, Ken Hutchinson and the Updale Natural History Recorder.It was a sunny day but with a strong chill breeze from the south west when on 3 September we decided to check how well the rowan tree planting was faring. There were widespread reports of good berry crops elsewhere and as we descended below the railway track and worked our way towards Blakey Swang from the south, we could see that the surviving mature rowan trees here were a splendid sight.

We then turned our attention to several small enclosures and scattered individual saplings carefully placed in the vicinity of mature trees along the steep escarpment. In some of the small enclosures we could see that numerous strong saplings had grown well above the tree guards. Vic pointed out a particularly healthy group in one of the highest enclosures and Ken looking through binoculars observed that one bore a small clump of berries. At first, Vic thought that he was joking but the first fruits of the planters’ efforts were there on display. He could not resist the impulse to climb the steep bank for a photo.

Growing Rowan Trees, Rosedale. Copyright Vic Fairbrother, Ken Hutchinson and the Updale Natural History Recorder.

The full story of this 20-year study by Ken and Vic has now been published and can be enjoyed in The Ring Ouzel: a view from the North York Moors launched this month by Whittles Publishing. Illustrated in full colour throughout and enhanced by superb paintings by local wildlife artist Jonathan Pomroy copies may be ordered at www.whittlespublishing.com  or obtained from the Moors National Park Centre, Danby or from Sutton Bank National Park Centre, as well as a number of other sources.

The Ring Ouzel: a view from the North York Moors - advertisement.

We are extremely grateful for all the support and encouragement we have received from members of the National Park staff throughout the study.

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