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Friday, 15 May 2015

The Ring Ouzel

It's early on a bright May morning, and I'm standing in a holloway beneath a gritstone edge once known as "Wildmoorstones". Around me, the bracken is beginning to push through the peat and unfurl, and purple lanterns of bilberry flowers are blooming. The scent of peat is in the air, as is the distinctive sound of a ring ouzel in full song.It is a song that is at home here, in this landscape of rugged crags, blanket bog, windswept heather and running water. A wild sound that compliments the acoustic qualities of quarries past. A sound that ricochets off boulders and forgotten millstones, and is echoed down in the gurgle of Burbage Brook. It is a sound that flows from high places and floods to pool in the natural ampitheatre of the valley.

The gritstone edges of Derbyshire support a localised population of this rare and beautiful bird. Known to many as the “mountain blackbird”, the ring ouzel can be easily mistaken for it’s more common relative of the thrush family. But look closer, and you will see a telltale white crescent, or “gorget” adorning it’s breast. Silvery wingstreaks and a piping song as clear as mountain springwater distinguish it as the blackbird's secretive, upland cousin; a ring ouzel.

A male ring ouzel 


Just over a year ago, I met Bill Gordon, North Lees and Stanage ranger with the Peak District National Park.
Bill has been studying ring ouzel on Stanage and Burbage for over thirty years and, although he would humbly deny it, is widely regarded as an expert in the field. Bill has worked closely with the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) on Stanage to enhance awareness and appreciation of the importance of ring ouzel conservation, and is an avid member of the Ring Ouzel Study Group.

I worked with Bill over the course of the "ouzel-ing" season of 2014, and have been fortunate enough to have him confide in me the locations of historical territories, loyal nesting sites, along with information on the habits, behaviour, and annual cycle of this mysterious bird. One thing I've realised you can't teach, however, is the art of "ouzel-ing". It requires patience, time, determination, and a decent alarm clock for early starts!  Reading the behavioural patterns of the bird, knowing the biological timings and physiology, all take time to develop, and there really is no substitute for experience. 

With Bill's help, we're hoping to gain a better idea of the number of territories on Burbage and the Eastern Moors, along with an idea of how land management can improve conditions for this iconic and increasingly rare species. 

A ring ouzel's year

Ring ouzels return from their wintering grounds in North Africa from late March onwards, a long-haul flight which is broken up with stops in Spain and France en-route. The males return first, and set about finding their territories. They look for clumps of vegetation on the edges of crags, and often drop lower into the bracken later in the season for their second brood. Many are site loyal, and will continue to use the same nest site year after year. Once the males arrive and settle on their territories, the females appear soon after. All being well, they should be on a clutch of eggs by the end of April, and be feeding young by mid May. 

It's at this stage of their breeding cycle when ring ouzels face a number of challenges. From predators such as stoats, weasels and corvids, to inadvertent disturbance through recreational activities; these birds have the odds stacked against them. They are not to be underestimated however, and although sensitive, are fiercely loyal to their nest site, their eggs, and their young. It is not unusual for a female ring ouzel to remain sitting on eggs while the nest becomes under attack, and paying the ultimate price for their parental dotage.

Chicks are very vulnerable to predation and disturbance

Looking forward

When it comes to statistics, things are not looking good for the ring ouzel. Data from the Ring Ouzel Study Group points to a decline in numbers of an alarming 70% from the mid-90s to the present day. It is now a Red data list species due to this decline. According to the RSPB, possible causes of this decline include afforestation, loss of heather for nest sites, climate change (in particular warmer summers), changes in grazing regimes and grassland improvement. Ring ouzels may also be experiencing problems on migration through southern Europe and in their wintering grounds. With this in mind, it goes without saying that every territory, every breeding pair, and every individual bird is valuable.

If ring ouzels continue to decline, and eventually disappear from this part of the world, we will have lost something forever. The ring ouzel is as integral to the landscape as the curlew and skylark, the heather and bilberry, the gritstone, clay and peat. They are part of the culture, the heritage, and the very nature of the uplands. They are part of the history of the places we love. And it's important that they remain here for years to come. 

On 20th June, Bill is leading a guided walk, "Life and Times of Ring Ouzels", from 8am-1pm. If you'd like to book, please contact

Suitable for adults and children aged 12+ years. 

Booking essential. £5.

More information:

Ring Ouzel Study Group website:

Bill has a long list of sound recordings and has found that there is a specific Peak District "dialect" which is unique to the region:

Many thanks to Tim Melling, Bill Gordon and Ron Egan for supplying the photographs. 

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