Girton Birdwatch - May 2012
I was flicking through my copy of Thomas Bewick's book A History of British Birds recently and was surprised to come across his woodprint and description of the black ouzel. The text outlines how easily tamed such birds are, how easily caught with bird-lime and snares, but how they must be kept in cages and not aviaries: 'for, when shut up with other birds, they pursue and harass their companions unceasingly'. Bewick concludes by remarking that in some counties of England this bird is called simply 'the Ouzel'. My surprise came from the realisation that he was writing, not about the ring ouzel as I first assumed, but the much more familiar blackbird. However, it is the ring ouzel (a member, like the blackbird, of the thrush family) which was causing the excitement in Cambridge in April. The ring ouzel is a bird of rocky hillsides and moors where it is usually to be found above the tree line, and everyone who loves the hills and knows something of their birds tends to have a soft spot for the bird as, together with the wheatear, it is one of the earliest of our upland summer migrants to arrive, normally towards the end of March. However, while on passage, it is much more widely distributed and may be found at the coast, among bushy scrub, among brambles and even open woodlands, although it is often overlooked, being shy and quite elusive. While I write this a ring ouzel has been hanging around the Cambridge Science Park (12th - 15th April) although presumably it will be heading north any day now. If you haven't seen the bird before it resembles a blackbird with a clerical collar.
I was alerted to its presence by Dave Heath who I also quizzed about the likelihood of coming across a redstart locally. I was not optimistic as this beautiful migrant is more usually associated with broad-leaved woodland, not an abundant habitat around this area, and I'm slightly reluctant to feature birds that people are not likely to see. I haven't come across a common redstart in this country but as they are one of my favourite birds I live in hope. They are difficult to miss as the male redstart has a characteristic, ever-quivering red tail (the 'start' derives from the Old English for tail) and a black face. So I shall have to 'get on my bike' as males have been reported from Morborne village (14th April) and, much closer by, Waterbeach (15th). I should love to have been around in 1965 when one of the greatest events in British ornithological history occurred with a dramatic 'fall' of these migrants (amongst others), countrywide but primarily in Suffolk. Walking two miles south from Walberswick on 3 September one lucky observer recorded 15,000 common redstarts, an average of almost two redstarts for every step he took. He also logged 8000 wheatears, 4000 pied flycatchers, 3000 garden warblers and 1500 whinchats. Similar numbers were to be found at Minsmere, while the 24-mile stretch of coast from Sizewell to Hopton played host to half a million birds. At the RSPB reserve, Minsmere, this was to prove one of those very rare occasions when migrants could be seen both outside and inside the hides. Don't expect anything so dramatic at Waterbeach!
I have seen a black redstart in this country, just the one, but that was in 1978 at Grafham Water. With the black redstart (it resembles the redstart but has much darker sooty coloured plumage) - one has to be careful what one wishes for. This is a common bird in continental Europe in mountains, towns and villages and along rocky coasts, but an uncommon spring and autumn migrant to much of our coastline. There is a small breeding population - seldom more than 100 pairs - in south-east England. They bred here in the 1920's, prospered for a while in the 1940's, but the hoped for take-off in numbers which might have led to the colonisation of towns and villages as on the continent, has not occurred. Why am I ambivalent about this? Wouldn't it be nice to have lots more black redstarts about? It would were it not for the fact that the bird has become symbolic of economic depression. The bird's early colonisation of London coincided with the blitz and the reduction of much of that city to a jumble of ruins, producing the ideal habitat for a rock-loving species. It quickly gained a reputation as a 'bomb-site' bird and, as these were cleared it moved on to ugly power-station developments. The black redstart seemed to thrive in areas of ugliness and urban dereliction, displaying a penchant for railway sidings, gas works, sewage farms, aggregate and scrap metal works and all types of industrial wasteground. They seem to find the vicinity of highly polluted streams particularly attractive. It is ironic that these unlovely places attract a lovely bird primarily because they are neglected and unmanaged (even modern nature reserves are 'tidy' and 'controlled') and in a strange way provide areas of true wilderness in which some creatures may thrive. What would happen if we came to value such derelict areas more? Cocker and Mabey recognise the dilemma posed by such land: 'Certainly it loses its ecological value once it is redeveloped, as happened in the London dockland area, once a stronghold for black redstarts. It is not surprising to find that the fortunes of both bird and habitat have tended to fluctuate in inverse proportion to the national economy. Both tend to be squeezed at times of boom and inner city regeneration, and thrive whenever there is a slow-down'. In these austere times perhaps it would be wise to seek our beauty elsewhere.