Getting ready for the return of the ring ouzel amidst the climbers.
The ring ouzels of the Atlas Mountains are not Dr Seuss characters, as you might imagine, but peat-coloured thrushes currently finishing the last of their winter juniper berries in North Africa before flying to their summer homes.
Confusingly for a species described as shy in bird books, 30 or so breeding pairs will soon descend on England’s busiest climbing edges.
The clue is in the bird’s alternative names: crag ouzel, fell throstle, or mountain blackbird, as it’s called in the Peak District. Mountain blackbirds have been nesting at Stanage and Burbage for generations, and are not going to let hordes of climbers and fell runners stop them now. Particularly now that local climbers are currently doing everything they can to welcome them back from Africa.
“The mountain blackbird is an ambassador for the wild high places of Britain,” said John Mead from the Eastern Moors Partnership. “It’s the emblematic bird of the moorlands.”
“It’s a characterful bird, and easy to identify, like a blackbird with a white streak around its throat,” said Henry Folkard of the BMC, the British Mountaineering Council. “Some say it looks like a clergyman.”
Since the turn of the century, Henry and fellow climbers have been working with the partnership, the Peak District National Park Authority, the National Trust and the Sheffield Bird Study Group to monitor mountain blackbirds and help them rear their young.
The birds nesting around Stanage and Burbage have been unusually successful, with their numbers stable (even slightly increased on Burbage) whereas breeding pairs have gone down by 70 per cent over the last 20 years in the rest of the UK, where the ring ouzel is now on our ‘red list’ of endangered birds.
Burbage and nearby moors are looked after to provide a ‘mosaic’ of habitats with a variety of food, which helps mountain blackbirds to fledge more young. Reducing sheep numbers and increasing cattle provides varying heights of grassland for different insects, for example.
After Henry and colleagues checked last year’s nest sites over the winter, new volunteers from the BMC recruited by the National Park and the Eastern Moors Partnership will help to identify this season’s nest sites. Where they’re near particularly busy climbing routes, they’ll then erect small estate agent signs asking climbers and walkers to take care around crag ouzel homes.
The birds will usually ignore people walking past, but can take flight when approached directly. Visitors should also take their food waste home, as crows and weasels will happily eat nearby eggs and fledglings after rooting through discarded picnics.
Another ouzel predator is the rambler’s dog. “And it’s not just when nesting,” said Henry. “After the young have fledged they hide in bracken or heather, so a loose dog can just find them and eat them up, and when the dog gets back no-one will know it’s happened.”
“We ask dog owners to keep their dogs on leads from March 1 through the nesting season,” said John.
Henry advised ouzel watchers to observe from a distance, and pay heed to what they’re saying. “If one starts going ‘tac tac tac’ at you, it’s telling you to keep away from its nest.”
Peak District ranger Bill Gordon has been monitoring (and recording) mountain blackbirds for years, and recently noted that Derbyshire birds have a different accent to other UK ring ouzels. “He recorded one male bird a couple of years ago with a different intonation, perhaps from further north, and sing as he might, that bird didn’t attract a mate,” said Henry. “The females must have wanted a local lad.”
When climbers and other outdoor citizens learn about rare wildlife like the mountain blackbird, it helps them to appreciate their moorland, said Henry. “It enhances what they’ve gone there for.”
John Mead added that the public are invited to report mountain blackbird sightings via a new ‘MoorWild’ app to help safeguard the population for future generations.
“It’s crucial we maintain this population here,” he said. “These birds are part of the landscape as much as the rocks themselves.”
Visit Moors for the future to try the free Moors for the Future ‘MoorWild’ app.