North Northumberland Bird Club

Bamburgh Cricket Pavilion was once again full as North Northumberland Bird Club members and visitors arrived to hear Bill Gordon’s talk on the ring ouzel – the emblem of the club for the past 30 years.

Bill is estate manager of the Peak District National Park, which is an area attracting thousands of visitors annually, including rock climbers, cyclists, off-roaders as well as walkers.

His remit to enable legitimate enjoyment of the Park while simultaneously conserving and protecting sensitive species such as the ring ouzel, is therefore a challenge.

During the most recent foot-and-mouth crisis in 2001, vast tracts of countryside were closed to the public including the Peak District National Park.

When restrictions were lifted, it became clear how many species, including the ring ouzel had flourished without human interference. Subsequently, Bill, his wife and colleagues, supported by the Park, decided to study the impact of recreation on birds and selected the ring ouzel as their chosen subject.

In this project, they drew closely on earlier studies done in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Concentrating mainly on the Stanage and Burbage areas, their work concentrated on identifying individual birds by behaviour, location, nesting habitat and song, which they recorded, using sonograms to compare individuals.

Ring ouzels return to the British Isles around the end of March and remain until September when they return to their wintering quarters in North Africa.

On arrival, they set up their territory, feed up, then begin the bonding process. Their song, during territory establishment ,was recorded and sonograms made, showing the rich variations from simple piping to the more complex notes which were evident when the pair were bonding.

The team also drew on previous studies of sound recordings which proved birds, like humans, have different dialects depending on the area of Britain in which they bred.

It was also noted in recordings made at the nest site that both parents vocalise softly with the chicks to imprint the local dialect.

Studying the song of every male on their patch was essential as each song is individual and hence facilitated their identification. The Peak District is well known on the climbing circuit and so it was essential to know exactly where the birds were nesting so that the climbing clubs could be alerted and advice given.

It is testament to Bill’s sensitivity in managing this conflict of interests by involving and gaining the cooperation of the climbing fraternity, that the project was so successful.

Nesting habitat in the area varies from the classic rocks, bilberry, heather scenario to the more unusual bare rock face which can often be smack in the middle of a sought-after named climb.

Other measures undertaken to protect the birds included enhancing the habitat by planting rowans, visitor management, spreading insect rich manure in areas close to where the birds are nesting , creating pools, as well as shielding vulnerable nests from predators. Advisory notices to the public are also used.

Successful nesting (often two broods per season) is recorded, but ringing of the chicks was discontinued in order to minimise disturbance.

The future of this project is sadly uncertain as many National Parks including the Peak District, face financial constraints and hard choices on funding have to be made.

With the current popularity for cycling, it is feared this may become a priority to the detriment of the wildlife in that area.

This presentation, accompanied by sound recordings and excellent slides, enabled an in-depth understanding of the behaviour and eccentricities of this iconic and exotic summer visitor.

Thanking Bill, chairman Graham Bell paid tribute to his obvious passion, dedication and sensitivity in ensuring this endangered species stands the best possible chance of success in an environment subject to so many pressures.