RSPB Scotland Research Assistant, Davide Scridel, has gone south this summer to search for ring ouzels in the North Pennines. Read on to find out more about his work with this elusive species.
A record breaking Giant Tortoise in Cumbria
Stunning view of RSPB Geltsdale reserve.
I must admit, my 2014 field season research location is not based in a bad location at all. Not only does it fall into an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, but it is also at the foot of giant tortoise! Appearing like a mirage at the south of the frenetic A69, you can just about make out its top shell. Today known as “Tortie hill” – in ancient times known as “Tortoy”, “Tortise” inferring “tortoise-shape” - lies in the heart of RSPB Geltsdale reserve and there is no doubt that this hill conforms to the reptilian outline. The combination of blanket bog, heath, upland farmland, as well as ancient woodland and pasture, make this reserve a jewel of the North Pennines. Since my arrival at the beginning of April, I have had some of my best wildlife sightings and I must thank the weather for this. The recent mild climatic conditions (one of the mildest winter and spring periods in the UK records) is potentially responsible for the record-breaking counts of many bird species here at the reserve. So far historic record counts have been broken for the number of black grouse lekking males (55), whilst the high abundance of voles visible on site may have influenced the greatest number of short-eared (21) and long-eared owl territories (6) seen in Geltsdale for a long time. Important increases have also been observed for merlin (9), lapwing, redshank, cuckoo, dunlin (2), whinchat (80+) and stonechat (20 to 30) territories. The first record of a twite nest was also a great surprise this year given its national scarcity.
Short eared owl.
Searching for Ring Ouzel
Male ring ouzel.
Despite being very easily distracted by the incredible bird diversity on site, I must remember the reason why I am here. I am spending spring and summer 2014 in Geltsdale to work on an exciting, innovative and ambitious project which aims to recover populations of a bird that many people might never have heard of, but which is a symbol of the British uplands and it is currently facing serious problems. The ring ouzel Turdus torquatus, or mountain blackbird, is the only summer visiting thrush in the UK, and just one of the several upland species undergoing a marked range contraction and population decline. Since 1999 ring ouzels have been listed as a bird of High Conservation Concern in the UK. Dr Innes Sim (RSPB Centre for Conservation Science) has been on this case for several years. Thanks to his and other scientists’ research, we think we have now pinned down the major reasons for the decline of Population declines appear to be primarily driven by low survival of juvenile birds. Improving the survival of first-year birds is therefore the target for potential conservation actions for this species in order to stabilise and reverse recent population declines.
Getting the Right Mix
Previous radio-tracking work in Scotland has helped to better understand ring ouzel habitat requirements. Ring ouzels not only like deep vegetation such as heather to hide their nest and fledglings, but they also require short grass-rich areas in which to forage for invertebrates (particularly earthworms). Prior to migration they also select sites rich in moorland berries (bilberry and crowberry) where birds can boost their energy reserves before departing for their wintering grounds in the Atlas Mountains of north-western Africa. Changes in grazing and moorland regimes have in fact varied historically and regionally across the UK, through the reduction of sheep numbers on the moors (causing the loss of invertebrate-rich, short-grazed, grassland), or through overgrazing which has reduced heather cover where Ring ouzels nest and shelter from predators.
Three Year Trial
Over the next three years - in a project jointly funded by Natural England and RSPB - we have the opportunity to apply direct conservation actions by providing this mix of habitats at two RSPB reserves: Geltsdale and Dove stone (just at the door-step of the Peak District National Park). These two reserves offer a suitable scenario to test and apply these first-ever conservation actions. Both reserves feature valleys where ring ouzel numbers have been stable in recent years (control), and have historically declined (treatment). At a first glance, the treatment valleys appear in line with above-mentioned hypotheses: overgrazing at Dove Stone has caused a reduction in heather cover, while in Geltsdale the disappearance of sheep has diminished the amount of grazed grass foraging habitat available. Therefore, at the treatment valley at Dove Stone, we will monitor vegetation composition and structure in an area where sheep have been excluded since 2008, with the hope that recovery in heather cover will be beneficial for ring ouzels. At the treatment valley at Geltsdale, we plan to re-introduce sheep grazing in autumn 2014 to try to re-create the short-grass foraging habitat favoured by ring ouzels. Through these actions, we hope to re-create the habitat mix found in the control valleys, and thus return the number of breeding ring ouzels in the treatment valleys to their historic levels.
My First 2014 Ouzel
Photo of ring ouzel chicks by Mingaile Zebaite.
My first seasonal sighting of a ring ouzel in the treatment valley at Geltsdale was on the 18th of April. This male mate-guarded the female, whilst foraging for red holly berries. This was a new and exciting observation (I have never seen an ouzel feeding on Holly berries before!). Ring ouzels can be a particularly tricky species to work with, and continuously challenge your birding skill confidence. This bird has a quite large body size (similar size to its cousin the blackbird) and the males have a very obvious bright white collar (the gorget) and an unmistakable wild, mellow and fluting song: trrü trrü trrü trrü … si-vütt si-vütt si-vütt si-vütt … chuvüü chuvüü chuvüü chuvüü … Despite these characteristics which should make the bird fairly obvious, if they are nesting, or just in a “weird mood” they can be incredibly elusive. Very occasionally they take long and high flights, sometimes more than 1km, from their territory just to forage in some lush grass, making themselves completely invisible even to the expert birder. Only repeated observations, lasting for several hours, from a variety of vantage points can ensure the presence or absence of this species in the area. At the beginning of April, Geltsdale also provided an insight into the behaviour of the ring ouzel that I have never experienced before. A common belief is that Ring ouzel can be outcompeted by other thrushes, in particular mistle thrushes. Given that Geltsdale reserve is quite close to houses and gardens, I was very impressed to observe a Ring ouzel feeding less than ten metres away from not only mistle thrushes, but also blackbirds. I later found an ouzel nest less than 50m away from that of a blackbird, and I have not yet experienced any signs of aggression between the two species. Overall, numbers of ring ouzels appear to be in line with previous years, with 13 territories occupied on the reserve, and the treatment and control valley having 0 and 3 breeding pairs respectively.
Vegetation monitoring relies on measuring composition and structure in both treatment and control valleys. It is a particularly important part of the job to keep recording changes in vegetation not just over one season, but also throughout the three years of work. Despite its importance, keeping your head down for 8 hours a day between one quadrant and the next can sometimes be “challenging”. Luckily there are plenty of adders, emperor moths and green hairstreak butterflies to keep me awake and entertained! Almost in time with the first signs of bilberry ripening, the first broods of the typically double-brooded ring ouzel have already fledged, and the emerging bracken, together with some thick heather, are forming a perfect cover for the food-demanding juvenile birds. Some males are already singing again in the Geltsdale reserve, ready to set up new territories for the second broods. I hope in the next few months to get even more new insights from this charming, yet mysterious, bird.
Many thanks to Adam Moan for the help during fieldwork.
Pete Ellis, Northern Isles Manager for RSPB Scotland, describes his excitement at seeing the new visitor facilities at Sumburgh Head opened.
On Tuesday I attended the opening ceremony for the newly refurbished Sumburgh Head Lighthouse Buildings. The buildings are on the RSPB Sumburgh Head nature reserve at the southern tip of mainland Shetland.
Image credit: Frank Bradford.
Shetland Amenity Trust was the lead partner in this ambitious and visionary project, with support from RSPB Scotland and the Northern Lighthouse Board. Much of the £5.4 million of grant funding was provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund and European Rural Development Fund. The development has been over ten years in the planning and construction, refurbishment and design work took two years, culminating in a brand new and exciting visitor facility.
HRH The Princess Royal was there to declare the world class facility officially open, along with hundreds of invited guests including RSPB Scotland Director Stuart Housden, East Scotland Regional Reserves Manager Simon Busuttil, and me (Northern Isles Manager).
As patron of the Northern Lighthouse Board, Her Royal Highness has visited Sumburgh Head Lighthouse many times, but I was proud (and a little nervous) to be given the honour of showing her around the new Marine Life Centre. We enjoyed the new interpretation, especially the calling ‘whales’ and despite the bad weather even managed to spot a few seabirds.
Image credits: Frank Bradford.
The Sumburgh Head Project has been a long-term ambition for the local community, and everyone involved, particularly Jimmy Moncrieff, the Shetland Amenity Trust’s General Manager, was proud to see so many years of hard work and planning come to fruition.
We are absolutely thrilled to have been a part of it. The main RSPB office for Shetland is next to the shop, and there is self-catering accommodation which can be rented by the public. There is also a bothy which we will use for residential volunteers from 2015. We welcome volunteers keen to work and stay at Sumburgh who would like to apply.
Shetland is a magnificent place for marine wildlife. Scorpion fish, sandeels, and bootlace weed are just a few of the amazing things waiting to be discovered in the waters around Shetland. And those seaborne riches mean the isles are home to internationally important colonies of seabirds including skuas, razorbills, kittiwakes, shags, fulmars, guillemots, and of course puffins.
Puffin by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Sumburgh Head is probably the most accessible place to see seabirds like puffins up close in the UK, and given the threats to seabirds and marine wildlife it’s vital their story is told to as big an audience as possible. We are delighted Sumburgh now has world-class visitor facilities to accompany its world-class wildlife experience.
Sumburgh Head nature reserve is open at all times and the Visitor Centre is open daily between 10.00am and 4.00pm. Special family and concession tickets are available for the indoor elements of the Sumburgh Head Experience. Visit www.sumburghhead.com or http://www.rspb.org.uk/sumburghhead/
We hope to see you soon! But, don’t worry if you can’t make it here in person - you can watch fabulous footage from the world-famous Sumburgh Head webcams online at www.shetland.org/puffincam/
Leading nature writer, broadcaster and wildlife television producer Stephen Moss tells Nick Major about his new book and lifetime love of bird song.
Every year Stephen Moss waits to hear the first song thrush of spring. Its “comforting, repetitive song...sounds like the bird is talking to you”, he says. The sound of the belly-freckled snail-basher, which usually appears “on a fine day in January”, has particular resonance for Moss. His earliest memory of hearing birds is of song thrushes and blackbirds singing on the roofs of the houses as he walked home from school through London suburbs in the mid-1960s. He was out walking with his primary school at the age of eight or nine when he saw his first great crested grebe at the local gravel pits. Later, a friendship struck up at secondary school with fellow birdwatcher Daniel Osorio ensured his interest in birds did not fall by the wayside.
Moss went on to become the original producer of the Bafta award-winning programme Springwatch and has worked with David Attenborough, Bill Oddie and Simon King. He has written more than twenty books on birds and wildlife, including Birds Britannia and Wild Hares and Hummingbirds: The Natural History of an English Village.
This year he was a key speaker at the RSPB’s Scottish Birdfair, where he introduced his new book, Tweet of the Day. Co-authored with Brett Westwood, the book was commissioned by the BBC after the resounding success of the popular radio programme of the same name. Moss says the authors’ aim was to capture the essence of almost 250 British birds in brief but very intense accounts, spurred on by their mutual love of “the way birds have a meaning beyond their purely biological existence, and how they affect us in our daily lives”.
The interpretation of birdsong comes with historical baggage. Moss maintains that during the 1970s, “it was seen as anthropomorphic to feel any kind of emotional attachment to nature - something that was taken for granted before the Second World War with writers like W.H.Hudson and Henry Williamson (and indeed Gilbert White) but fell out of fashion when scientists held sway. Sometime around the millennium this began to change, and today we are able to engage emotionally and spiritually with nature as well as scientifically. Birdsong is a great example of something we can appreciate on many levels, from the biological to the emotional.”
Apart from the simple pleasures it gives to the ear, birdsong is often a gateway for identification. “Once you know what a bird is you can begin to learn more about its behaviour, its movements and migrations, and its cultural importance,” Moss says. The introduction to Tweet of the Day identifies the connection between birdsong and art. Although Moss thinks the music of birds more akin to free-form jazz than poetry, he says “many great poets have been inspired by birdsong, most notably John Clare”, while the great Scottish zen-calvinist poet Norman MacCaig “captures the wonder of birds with amazing brevity and beauty”. Tweet of the Day quotes an extract from his poem Stonechat on Cul Beg, where the call of this “trim and dandy bird” is a quick hard “flint-on-flint ticking”. Moss’ love of the thrush calls to mind Philip Larkin’s poem Coming, with its clear image of the bird’s “fresh-peeled voice/ astonishing the brickwork”.
For many people, linking a disembodied song with its avian singer is a daunting task. In his talk at the Scottish Birdfair, Moss likened interpretation to learning a language. As with any learning process this means admitting, and not fearing, interpretative mistakes. For children in particular it is made all the more difficult as they are ensconced in what he describes as an “education system that hates failure”.
It is comforting to know that even for an expert like Moss, the calls of all common birds such as chaffinch and great tit can be confusing. There are more than 5,000 songbird species around the world, making comprehensive knowledge next to impossible. Nevertheless, for any budding interpreter, Moss has plenty of tips. The clue to many bird songs is in the name, and mnemonics can be useful memory aid. Birds’ names frequently derive from their song; the chiffchaff or the kittiwake are among the more obvious examples. “It’s important to listen carefully to each species and work out what is memorable about their song...the song thrush is repetitive, the great tit syncopated, the willow warbler goes down the scale,” Moss says. He recommends Bill Oddie's “rhythm, pitch and tone” as a good place to start.
For Moss, bird song arrests the mind. It is choral harmony of meaning. His passion and knowledge is a reminder that bird song is not merely a biological survival instinct. The call of the cuckoo, or the song of the thrush reminding us year on year that, in the words of Larkin, “it will be spring soon, it will be spring soon”.
Tweet of the Day (Saltyard Books, 2014) is out now in hardback.