Confessions of an Ouzel Hunter – part one….. ( first published in Birdwatching Magazine)

Leaving the RSPB’s South West office after my first ever job interview, I felt I had put forward my case reasonably well enough but did the total lack of anything associated with birds on my CV count heavily against me? Well I took a bike ride up to the top of my nearest Tor as soon as I got home and being a beautiful April evening I sat and whispered a few hopes and prayers to the freshly arrived and dapper Wheatears that were bouncing from rock to rock and eyeing me curiously from the tops of nearby lumps of granite. It appears they heard me and passed on my words to their fellow travellers and within a fortnight I was grunting my way up some of the more vertical slopes that Dartmoor has to offer in pursuit of a very different career and one that came in the rough shape of a Blackbird; I was now a professional ouzel hunter. I had got the job.

An Ouzeller on a good day (note: the sun is shining!)

An Ouzeller on a good day (note: the sun is shining!)

I had been tipped off about this post literally a day before the closing deadline, the timing in this respect was bad, what with the ensuing panic writing of a CV and rapid filling in of job application forms; but on the other hand the timing was rather good. Tired and jaded of the media world, a little fed up with skimming the surface of so many subjects but never having time to immerse myself in them and wanting in my own little way to do something real, something positive something that was more than an ephemeral piece of televisual entertainment. On getting the RSPB job the course of the next two summers was changed. I can now honestly say that Ring ouzels saved my soul and all I had to do in return was to do my bit to try and save them.
I had always loved this bird, every since seeing my first one, the first year I moved to the West Country. The day I remember vividly. I had caught a bus from Exeter to Moretonhampstead and then hitch-hiked into the very centre of the Dartmoor. Having slammed the door of the blue Montego and said a thank you to the only person alive on Dartmoor that day (and who had against all odds stopped and offered a lift to this odd-ball with binoculars) I remember the sound of the spluttering Austin, fading away, and feeling utterly alone as I was left standing at the side of the road, facing nothing more than white cloud. It was behind this veil of moisture that ‘where to watch birds in Devon and Cornwall’ told me ‘was one of the most productive places for watching birds on Dartmoor’ it was, it also helpfully informed me, also ‘the easiest place on Dartmoor for finding ring ouzels’. The only problem was I could not see further than a few metres in front of my nose.
I was alone on the Moor it seemed, no noise, life was muffled by the low cloud and the murk, I took one step off the asphalt onto the spongy grass when I heard the exception to the rule , somewhere not too far in front of me something let forth some sort of a song, a plaintive but strident tri-syllabic note emulating from an unseen syrynx. I didn’t realise it at the time but I had just heard my first ring ouzel. That first day didn’t really reveal the bird to me, I got one brief glimpse of what I’m sure was an ouzel but it could easily have been any other of the Turdus clan, maybe even an adventurous Blackbird (there are a few that nest here).
Since that day I have grown to love this bird. For me the ring ouzel is the true essence of our uplands. It epitomizes our wild places and what’s more it’s a real connoisseurs bird, a condition afforded to it by its habit of breeding in the lofty seats, more often than not with a big sky and a spectacular vista . As a consequence of its high throne and its secretive nature it is a bird rarely just stumbled upon, to experience this bird at its best you need to actively seek it out. Which is was just one reason why the idea of carrying out a productivity study of this bird for the RSPB appealed to me; the opportunity to get a privileged audience with Mr and Mrs Torquatus was irresistible. But superimposed on this ornithological challenge were other more long term and serious challenges.

An Ouzeller on a bad day (It's raining, the birds seem to have vanished and I've left my sandwiches in the car 2 miles away!)

Dartmoor is my home and I’ve come to think of the ring ouzel very much as the spirit of the wild places found here, the clitter slopes and lonely valleys just wouldn’t be the same without this guardian of the tors . But like many ‘birders’, Moorland ramblers and naturalists I’ve also come to miss the birds presence as even in the last twenty years it’s distribution on these southern moors has decreased, it is no longer found in the place I first discovered it over 20 years ago, having vanished rather suddenly a few years back. This sad state of affairs is a reflection of its status throughout its UK range with many breeding populations in decline and others such as Exmoor becoming effectively extinct with birds only seen here as birds destined for more northerly breeding bounce through on passage. But even in its UK stronghold the highlands of Scotland its numbers are on the slide.
It’ exclusivity is also reflected in its tasteful although subtle appearance; at a distance the casual eye may easily mistake it for its close and much more familiar relative the Blackbird. But up close the feathers, each gilded with a delicate pale edge give the bird hidden depths and dimensions It’s a bird of subtle attire, bordering on ecclesiastical, the male in particular with his dark body plumage and his white breast band or gorgette is rather lovely, the less often experienced female being a slightly less contrasting collection of brown tones, with a less clearly marked georgette (although the older the females get the bolder the gorgette and hence they look more and more male, especially at a distance)

A Ring Ouzel with its face-full. Earthworms form an important part of this birds diet and when the spring is a dry one, they can be difficult to find

Not any more it isn't

To sum it all up, I stumbled upon this, the very first page of print in the 1895 edition of D’Urban and Mathews ‘The Birds of Devon’. Turn the yellowing page and on the other side is a water colour of Yes Tor, described in the footnote as ‘Home of the ring Ouzel’ it is a sad thing to report that in 2010 it is no longer, and the big question is, (and what a small focussed group of individuals that call themselves ‘The Ring Ouzel Study Group’ are dedicated to trying to answer) why?

If you want to know any more about this magical migrant or indeed report your sightings or observations then it’s worth checking out the Ring Ouzel Study Group website.

I’ve also had a few enquiries about the ‘camo’ gear I’m wearing in the pictures; It is made by Rivers West this is excellent and very tough stuff, made of a water proof, soft and fleecy material – which is quiet, warm and dry, really it’s a little too warm for summer use (I use it a lot in the winter and it’s fine). Originally intended for the hunting market, it has a place in the  field naturalists wardrobe too.

This article was first part published last spring in Bird Watching magazine but this is just the beginning and in future blogs – I’ll be telling a few of the other stories about my work with this,  most addictive bird.

If you wish to  support the work done by the good folk of the RSPB then why not join in and join up?