Girton Birdwatch - June 2007
It's quite possible that someone has seen a strange looking part-albino blackbird around the village, wearing a clerical collar. If so then you have probably been lucky enough to have caught a glimpse of one of our earliest upland summer migrants; the Ring Ouzel. These birds were arriving in the county in quite large numbers throughout April, with the nearest confirmed sightings being in Trumpington, Fowlmere, Fen Drayton and Caldecote. Ring ouzels are similar in size to the blackbird but have a white breast-band (male), slightly longer wings and tail and 'scaly' underside, particularly in winter when we are unlikely to see them as they spend this season mainly in the Atlas Mountains and around the Mediterranean. The female has a fainter breast-band and browner plumage; the juveniles are speckled brown below and on the throat. Although it's possible to confuse a ring ouzel with a part-albino blackbird this is unlikely to occur during the breeding season because nesting ouzels are rare below 1000 feet: the birds arriving in Cambridgeshire, and along our coasts (I've only seen the one in this country and that was on the beach at Minsmere) are heading for upland, heathery/rocky areas of Northern England, Wales, Scotland and the South West. Unlike the blackbird, they are quite shy and difficult to approach.
Another migrant that arrived in the area more or less at the same time as the ouzel was the Northern Wheatear. This is a smaller bird (15cm-6in compared with 24cm-9.5in), sturdy and rather active, with a striking white rump and tail markings, long, black legs and upright posture. The male in summer has a blue-grey back, black mask and wings, with buff under-parts. The female, in all seasons, resembles the male in winter plumage: brownish wings, brownish-grey back, and a chest lacking the male's orange tone. Both male and female birds were being reported throughout April and early May from Trumpington, Haddenham, Fen Drayton, Coton, Heydon, Ferry Meadows and St. Ives. Although wheatears, especially when breeding, are attracted to upland areas and bare hillsides they are also to be found on heaths and sand-dunes, although they are in relative decline at such sites. They were once common in areas subject to extensive sheep grazing or where the grass was kept short by other herbivores. Hence their welfare was also closely tied to that of the rabbit, so the deliberate introduction of myxomatosis in the 1950's , with the accompanying effect on grass land previously kept short by the rabbits, had repercussions for the wheatear population which have persisted, especially in areas south of a line from the Humber to the Severn, ever since. Wheatears are further tied to the fate of rabbits because they are hole-nesting birds and at one time regularly used abandoned burrows. I used regularly to see migrating wheatears on the disused railway track which ran from Gatehouse Lane to Westwick. This open, sandy track, fringed by blackthorn, hawthorn, bramble and similar bushes, and paved with those characteristic grey stones which supported the sleepers, appeared to provide a seductive temporary stopping-over point for the wheatear. This fertile area (for birds that is) has been destroyed now to make way for the guided bus and (together with the loss of other unspectacular local havens) has decreased still further those habitats which attracted and sheltered many birds and animals. These, for many of us, enriched the environment, and are the sort of places that, as Joni Mitchell put it: 'You don't know what you've got Till it's gone'.
If you are not familiar with this bird look out for a lively bird flitting close to the ground, flashing its tell-tale white rump. Its active life style becomes the more impressive when its migratory patterns are taken into account. Some 'far eastern' populations have steadily expanded their Asiatic range across the Bering Straits into Alaska, and yet the New World birds still winter in Africa undertaking an incredible two-way journey of 15,600 miles (26,000km). Only a relatively short strip of tundra now separates the 'eastern' birds from their 'western' counterparts, which have spread into Arctic Canada from the other direction and which only have to undergo a mere 7000 mile (11,265km) trip, including a non-stop transatlantic 'hop' of 1500-2000 miles (2500-3330km); and this from a bird which weighs about one ounce (28gm).
The bird, like so many, has a variety of 'country' and colloquial names. Confusingly, its head seems to bear very little resemblance to, or have any connection with, 'wheat'. In fact, its now-accepted name refers to its white rump. It owes its origin to two Old English words, hwit or 'white', and aers, 'rump' or 'backside'. Cocker and Mabey suggest that it probably developed its modern meaning when arse acquired its ribald connotations in the seventeenth century, and point out that subsequent authors wriggled embarrassedly to invent more acceptable origins for it - it was said to have white ears, or to depart in the harvest season or arrive at ploughing time - rather than face up to its earthier Saxon derivation.
The local skies have been host to a variety of interesting birds during April and early May. A Hoopoe was in Caldecote on 18th April and two White Storks were seen to the North East of Cambridge on the 28th. A Black Kite, much rarer in this country than the ever-increasing Red, was spotted near Wittering on May 6th; what was probably an Osprey passed over Girton on May 2nd, while a Spoonbill was at Paxton Pits on 13th. Who needs to go to the Continent?
Ken Sheard, Ken.sheard2 at ntlworld.com