Tag Archives: Ring Ouzel

Peak District: the barren hills

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River Ashop, Peak District, Derbyshire

The Peak District contains some of the most dramatic scenery in England, and is a great place for walking. It is beautiful, historic, and interesting, but also bleak, damaged, and perplexing.

The famous Gritstone rock formations were like natural staging posts and diversions on our walks up in the hills.

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Sometimes the layers – that would have been formed hundreds of millions of years ago from depositions of sand under the sea – were visible.

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And sometimes it was hard not to anthropomorphise the escarpments overlooking the plains down below the Kinder Scout plateau.

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The bleakness of the moors is famous and loved by many. I can certainly appreciate a beauty in the desolation of the moors, hills, and plateaus, but there is also something that leaves me uneasy.

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That unease stems from the knowledge I have that these areas should not look like this. This is not a natural wilderness, but – like so much of British uplands – a scraped, denuded desert shaped by the hand of man and the teeth of sheep.

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George Monbiot describes the ‘white plague’ and the ‘sheepwrecked‘ landscapes that have been stripped of so much that is ‘natural’.

It would be unfair to ignore the fact that some wildlife seems to thrive in these landscapes. Everywhere we went the squeaks and songs of Meadow Pipit followed us, and Skylark seemed to punctuate the bleakness, singing and looking down upon the land we have stripped almost bare for them.

Of course, the careful management of the land is deliberate to encourage one species in particular to flourish: Red Grouse. I didn’t have my camera with me, but even with an iPhone and some binoculars, I was able to pick the odd head out of the heather.

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Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus)

Occasionally, a parent would be separated from a chick, and the stripey young birds would scuttle across the paths in front of us.

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Red Grouse chick

And, of course, when land is maintained (burned and stripped) for one species, others sometimes benefit as well. Curlew were sometimes seen suspended in the wind or passing over our heads in small herds (yes, that is the correct collective noun), but more often they would announce their invisible presence with their mournful cries. At one point two almost sea-bird-like shapes appeared above our heads and seemed to hover over and watch us. Before I put my my bins to my face to identify them, they gave the game away with not just a call, but a song: weirdly my first Golden Plover for the year. I later watched one drop down in the grass so I took a record shot with my phone up against my bins:

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European Golden Plover (Pluvialis apricaria)

Despite trying to make a case against the wildlife desolation, I was also lucky enough to see a pair of Ring Ouzel and Whinchat. Whenever there was a tree – rare but present in gorges and river valleys – there were Willow Warbler singing – far more common up there than the also-present Chiffchaff and Blackcap.

Despite wheezing my office-air-con fuelled lungs, hungover, up hills, I also turned my eye to other non-avian fauna. Not exactly spectacular from the lepid-pespective, but a year tick for me was Green Hairstreak – a butterfly I expect to see many of shortly on my local Patch, but haven’t yet.

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Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi)

I was also quite pleased with this rather uniquely marked Two-banded Longhorn Beetle (I have looked through tens of pics of this species and can’t find any that look quite like this):

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Two-banded Longhorn Beetle (Rhagium bifasciatum)

So… not dreadful, but still a pretty small number of species given the expanse of wilderness. I tried to cast my mind back before memory to what these hills would have looked like just a few hundred years ago. Fully wooded and just full of life. Life that is now not just gone, but beyond gone, before memory so treated as an irrelevance or a non-existence by the powers that be.

My perspective became ‘resolve’ and hardened when I saw this sign.

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Let’s just read that first paragraph again:

This apparently simple landscape has been shaped by people over hundreds of years. Forest clearance, farming and grouse shooting have all had a lasting impact.

You don’t say! Perhaps those words washed over you as neutral or benign, but just imagine flying to Brazil to visit the Amazon Rainforest and when you get there, there are just burnt and empty fields or pasture land for cows and there was sign saying “forest clearance, farming and wild animal shooting have all had a lasting impact”! Yes they ‘effing well have. We have wrecked our wooded island like a larger scale version of Easter Islanders who wiped out first their trees and, then, themselves.

It appears that some authorities are aware of the problem. We walked past a field of plastic posts. My friend remarked it was probably a commercial plantation, but when I peered into the tubes I was heartened to see a mix of species: English Oak, Birch, even Rowan had been planted and protected from the ever-hungry mouths of the white plague.

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Rowan. I thought back to the ancient stooping tree over the trout-filled stream that we walked by in some inaccessible corner. I thought back further. I thought back into the depths of imagination when dots of Rowan would have appeared in the newly ice-cleared land dominated by the pines, oak, and birches.

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An old Rowan or Mountain Ash (Sorbus aucuparia)

The rowan with their many leaves and colourful berries bringing something different to our newly re-forested land. Our land that soon after became an island (when dogger disappeared under the waves), and then… just a few thousand years later (blink of an eye in geological terms) has been stripped and scoured and scorched to the bleak and barren hills we now know that overlook our equally barren agricultural lowlands.

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Common Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)

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Walking through planted pine woodland

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Well established pine and fir plantation

And so, during my walks in the Peaks, I reflected on the wild, the re-wild, the desolate hills, the life wiped out that is never to come back, and occasionally also the human life forgotten and lost in these hills, like the villagers of Derwent whose homes were ‘drowned’ in the name of progress (Ladybower Reservoir) with only the odd sign left telling of their presence.

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Looking down to Ladybower

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Gateposts from a now destroyed and drowned house in Derwent

If you would like to read more about re-wilding, I can heartily, and strongly, recommend George Monbiot’s magnum opus, Feral, which I see as a manifesto for the wild we so desperately need to let back into our hearts, our lives, and our environment.

 

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Patch perfect

I went out onto the patch this morning with one intention: finding a Yellow-browed Warbler. It has been a bit of bogey bird for me: every year there are many, many that visit the UK, but I never seem to be in the right place at the right time, and when I have been, I have still missed them.

And so I worked hard to get one. I carefully looked, but even more carefully listened as I walked first through Bush Wood and then around the SSSI. Bush Wood seemed full of Goldcrest calls, but there was little else there.

It seemed a little odd to be trying so hard to find a bird that has never been found on the patch, with the exception of a single call once heard. I thought of all the hours Nick puts into the patch and he has not seen one here. But then I thought about the number the guys from the patch were seeing up in Shetland, the fact that more do seem to be coming each year, and the fact that one had been heard nearby in Snaresbrook the other day as well as one or two others on key London sites. So I persevered.

I remained almost totally focused on my goal until I was distracted by a bird high up in Motorcycle Wood. I couldn’t see any colouration at first, but the shape and size pointed singularly at Ring Ouzel. Patch year tick! It then started chacking loudly to put its ID beyond doubt. When it flew down into the birches, it revealed its stunning crescent and was followed by another one – a pair (and later we would see a total of three together and another possible in the Copse to the East of Alexandra lake – the most I have seen anywhere!)

I followed the Ouzels for a bit and walked out of the trees to try and get a better view from the South of Motorcycle Wood. It was here that I heard that wonderful, unmistakeable high-pitched reverse wolf whistle. Yellow-browed Warbler. I could not believe it. In fact, at first, I literally did not believe it. The call was repeated over and over again, but I couldn’t see a thing. I decided it must be another birder playing a tape on the other side of the trees.

Then, a strange succession of things happened in a very short space of time: I wanted to walk around and check for another birder; I wanted to stay and find the bird; I wanted to believe my ears and tweet it out to alert the world to my triumphant find – first conclusive YBW on the patch ever and I was the finder. So, I looked at my phone and saw a missed call from Jono. As the thought flashed through my mind that he must be the culprit playing the recording, the calls got closer and louder. I looked up and saw a small Phyllosc warbler moving through the birches. I then saw Jono come around the corner asking me if I was playing tape; I was very pleased to be able to say ‘no’. Yellow-browed Warbler finally ticked off: a new life bird for me (very pleased to have got over that embarrassing hurdle), my 106th bird on the patch, and 97th for the year on the patch.

Jono and I continued to hear the calls – sometimes incessantly for a minute or two, but didn’t get any good views. Not for ID, but for the love of birds I wanted to see what I had only seen on paper and pixels: that super citrus supercilium and those wonderful wing-bars on that great green plumage.

We were soon joined by Tony, then Richard, and then Simon. At first the bird was silent. Never before have I so wanted others to experience a bird I have already heard and seen. It is difficult to explain, but the desire to share that wonderful experience (and maybe a slight sense of wanting to ensure everyone believed what I knew to be true) was very strong. We did that thing that birders and horror film victims always do: split up to have a better chance of finding the bird. I stayed put whilst the others walked off. Soon after, the calls started again like a tiny avian car alarm: I looked over at Tony and Richard who were still just about visible but they had obviously not heard anything so I ran over, gesticulated and cupped my hand to my ear whilst pointing at the tree from where the call came. Jogging down, we were all soon sharing the same experience.

Whilst in the middle of this happy mayhem, I noticed a Skylark calling from the Police Scrape, and then we saw a skein of geese circling . I was some way from the others and simply noticed that the geese were calling very strangely. I had no idea what they were, I just knew they weren’t Canada or Greylag. Luckily I didn’t have long to wait as the guys behind me started shouting. I stared hard through my bins and made out the barring that conclusively confirmed what I had heard Tony say: White-fronted Goose. 15 of them, and the third sighting in a decade on the patch if the records are correct. This, at the same time as the first Yellow-browed Warbler was calling!  I was giggling like a tipsy teenager.

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Greater White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons)

When we eventually all saw the YBW briefly on a branch, it was pure birding magic. It is not an ostentatious bird, but at that time it truly felt that I had never seen anything more beautiful in my life.

But it was only hours later, when I was back on the patch, that I managed to get a photo or two of this amazing bird.

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Yellow-browed Warbler (Phylloscopus inornatus)

So the day is ending with me having found (or joint found), heard, seen, and photographed a life first, got anther patch life tick and got a year tick – finishing the day on 98 birds for the year (tantalisingly close to my century target and equalling my score last year). But so much more important than a tick is the fact that I got to experience this patch birding magic with others – birding can be an amazing experience alone in the wild, but I increasingly learn how much better it can be when with others.

When Jono and I finally got photos of the bird this afternoon, we were with his daughters. How many 9 and 11 year olds have seen a Yellow-browed Warbler in inner London? My guess is very few indeed. And that highlights how truly special today has been.

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Whether a wind-blown vagrant or, as science increasingly seems to believe, a pioneering radical avoiding the normal migration routes (like the small percentage of bees programmed not to follow the hive when there is bountiful nectar found to ensure new pastures are also sought out), I shall never forget this bird or this wild experience just a few minutes walk from my terraced London house. Wanstead Flats is a genuinely incredible place.