Tuesday, 6 April 2021

One rare(ish) bird, "What is an Ouzel?" and a mini-essay on grouse moor management

Spring is here but the weather is still quite wintry (with a few warm days) and a lot of the winds have been coming from the northern quarter of the compass. Possibly as a result of this, the spring migrants have been relatively thin on the ground and have taken a bit of an effort to find.

After the Wheatears that I saw on the 28th of March, the next spring migrant to be added to my NMT list for the year was Sand Martin (NMT #113 on the 31st of March), represented by a flock of at least 44 feeding on aerial insects over Portrack Marsh in Stockton-on-Tees, on one of the few warm days. Although a few birders round here have seen Swallow and House Martin (both close relatives of the Sand Martin) I have yet to connect with either.

On Saturday I went north of the Tees again, despite the fairly strong northerly wind and had a lovely day's birding around the Saltholme and Greatham Creek areas. There were lots of birds around (I saw 65 species and there were others that I missed), but as I had seen most of them on previous visits, I only added two species to the NMT list. 

The first of these is the "rare(ish) bird" mentioned in the title of this blog - a Green-winged Teal. This is the North American version of our Common (or Eurasian) Teal, which is now recognised by the International Ornithological Congress (IOC) as a separate species (they used to be considered sub-species). I say "rare(ish)" because, as with the American Wigeon that I saw in mid-March (see http://northormesbynaturalist.blogspot.com/2021/03/bike-and-boots-birding-woo-hooo-century.html) there are always a few Green-winged Teals knocking about the country, and this bird (or another one) has been visiting Saltholme every winter for at least 10 years now. It is distinguished from 'our' Teal by the vertical white bar on the sides of the breast and the absence of an obvious horizontal white line. This is visible from quite a long distance - a good thing for me as the bird  was nearly 400m away in a slight heat-haze.

The second new NMT bird for that day was the Common Sandpiper which had been eluding me every time I stopped at Billingham Beck  on the way to and from Saltholme. Most of our Common Sandpipers spend the winter around the Mediterraneam or further south but some occasionally over-winter here. Consequently, I am not sure if this bird was an early spring migrant or one that has been here since last year. 

Also of interest on Saturday were another Spoonbill at Saltholme, and a White Wagtail (this is the  more widespread version of the species that includes our Pied Wagtail - as I'm only counting full species for the NMT it doesn't count on the list). I had assumed that this was the same bird I saw at the end of February but pictures taken by better photographers than me (enabling reading of the rings) have shown that there have been at least three different Spoonbills at Saltholme so far this year.

Today (Tuesday the 6th of April) I took advantage of a day off to make what I think is my longest NMT journey so far this year (certainly the hardest, with strong northerly winds, snow showers and some very steep hills), into the North York Moors National Park.

Having made it up the whole of Ormesby Bank (10% slope in some places), non-stop for the first time, I headed to a little village with a stream running through it where I know that Dippers breed, and, ta-daah, before I'd even got off my bike I'd seen one sitting in the middle of the stream under the bridge. Dippers are Passerines (songbirds) but unlike most songbirds they spend their whole lives in or near water, and actually submerge themselves completely when searching for insect larvae and other aquatic creatures on which they feed.

There are 5 species of Dipper in the world, all very similar in size, shape,
and lifestyle, but varying in plumage a bit. The full name of our species
is White-throated Dipper and it is found in fast-flowing streams across most
of Europe and parts of central and western Asia 

When I first saw the wood and wire fence hanging down from this bridge
(a couple of weeks ago), I worried that it might put the Dippers off from breeding
here this year (I don't remember it being there on previous visits), and possibly 
even lead to the birds being injured. It doesn't seem to have done so and this
bird flewaway safely after I had watched it for a few minutes

From the Dipper site I headed up into the edge of the Moors to the outskirts of Kildale village, where I again struck lucky as soon as I arrived at my destination. My target species was a Ring Ouzel, which as well as being my second new NMT bird of the day, was also my second 'ouzel' (actually, now that I think about it, it was my third ouzel of the day - read on to see why). This brings us to the question in the title of this blog - What is an Ouzel? The Ring Ouzel is a bird in the Thrush family, very similar in size and shape to our common Blackbird, but with a large white crescent on the chest (clearest in the males) and white edges to the wing and belly feathers. It is a summer visitor to uplands in the UK and so is sometimes known by the old name 'Mountain Blackbird'. Interestingly, the previous species I talked about, the Dipper, used to be called the Water Ouzel.  The name Ouzel comes from the Old English word 'Osle', and was originally applied to the widespread Eurasian Blackbird, which is why I realised as I was writing this that I actually saw three species of Ouzel today.

The bright white chest crescent on this otherwise mostly black bird, 
marks it out as a male Ring Ouzel. This was one of three that were found
 at the weekend, but despite struggling to the top of a hill in a bitterly cold
wind I was unable to find the others [after getting home I learned that the
others were still there and have now been joined by a fourth]

Immediately after spotting the Ring Ouzel I saw and heard a Red Grouse (NMT#118). Similarly to Pied Wagtail, this is actually the British and Irish subspecies of a much more widespread species - the Willow Grouse (known as Willow Ptarmigan in North America where its range stretches from Alaska to Newfoundland, making it a good candidate, surely, for the title of most widespread game-bird in its natural range).

If you are a fan of Famous Grouse whisky you should recognise this
bird from the picture on the bottle. I took this picture in November
2018, in almost exactly the same spot as I saw today's bird

Red Grouse seen through the smoke from a controlled heather burn -
November 2018

Although Red Grouse is a wild, native bird in the UK, it is much more numerous than it would be if the moors weren't carefully managed by regular burning of the heather for the industry that is 'Driven Grouse-shooting'. Although burning encourages the young growth of heather, on which the grouse feed, when done over a whole landscape, as it is in huge areas of upland Britain, it creates a very uniform habitat and has many negative effects on moorland ecosystems. These include changes to peat hydrology, chemistry and physical properties, changes to the chemistry of water in rivers and streams, killing of trees and shrubs, the reduction of the diversity and extent of boggy areas and the consequent diminution of the whole web of moorland life, from the invertebrates to large birds. There have also been many documented instances of illegal killing of birds of prey by game-keepers on grouse-shooting estates, and despite being a National Park, the North York Moors is notorious for this. Consequently, while I was on actual heather moorland today I saw very few bird species, and no large birds of prey - there should be Common Buzzard, Hen Harrier, Short-eared Owl and Merlin but sadly they are very hard to find in much of the moors. 

Having tried and failed to see more Ring Ouzels, I retreated to a (slightly) lower altitude where I started to see more birds again - Lapwings, Curlews, Oystercatchers (all upland-breeding waders), my only Mistle Thrush of the day, and, in a small area of open deciduous woodland, I heard my first Green Woodpeckers of the year (bringing the NMT-list to 119). Unlike our other two British woodpecker species, Green Woodpecker mostly feeds on the ground (ants being its main food), although it still deserves the name woodpecker as it excavates its nest holes in tree-trunks. The call of this species is an unmistakeable loud laughing sound, which gives it its old country name of Yaffle. Readers of my generation may remember the children's TV programme Bagpuss which featured a character called Professor Yaffle - 'an old wooden bookend in the shape of a woodpecker'. Judging by his name he must have been a Green Woodpecker (although being made of wood, he was entirely brown).

I went home (into the teeth of a northerly gale) via the imposing (and visible for miles around) monument to Captain Cook near Great Ayton (read more about this, here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easby_Moor). Although I didn't add any more new species to my year-list I did hear several flocks of Siskins in the conifers, and saw my only Rook of the day as I was hurtling down the steep hill into Great Ayton.

1 comment:

  1. Well done with the Ring Ouzel. A bogey bird for me. I'd love to see one. Mind you having a griffon vulture fly just above the woods behind the house this morning is some compensation.