Female Ring Ouzel
courtesy of Terry Sherlock
A chilling northeasterly wind, the crack of dawn and a tedious drive the length of Oxfordshire culminated in my standing and overlooking the secluded and atmospheric, juniper filled valley that is Linkey Down. Yes it's that time again, early April and the chance of seeing Ring Ouzels at their favourite stopping off point in Oxfordshire. Today was typical Ring Ouzel weather, as in fact it had been for most of this week, with reports of ouzels from all over the country. An earlier visit to Linkey Down on Tuesday had failed to find any at all, just a male Wheatear jumping from ant hill to ant hill and looking every bit the dandy that he is in the spring sunshine. Today was again sunny but the wind was stronger and bitingly cold. Thankfully the track down the north side of Linkey Down was sheltered by a rising bank of downland separating this haven from the awfulness of the M40 and the endless noisy progress of vehicles up and down it. I walked through the first sheep gate with it's depressing information about Ash dieback disease and scanned the valley slopes and floor. Seven Fallow Deer does, all flicking ears and lustrous eyes, huddled together in a corner alert to my presence but seemingly content to tolerate me from afar. A pair of Bullfinches slipped through the bare hawthorn bushes, their whimsical contact calls imparting a mood of melancholy and a Green Woodpecker yaffled as it plundered the anthills below me.
I approached the second gate further down the track.There appeared to be two Blackbirds on the path below the yews and beyond the gate. The first, a female, quickly disappeared into the bushes. The second, also a female bird remained, partially obscured by dead brambles. Had it seen me? I looked closely through my bins. Hmmm. Overall it was blackbird brown but it's wings seemed very pale in comparison to it's body or was that just some pale grass in front of it creating that impression? It was too far away and too obscured to make much more of it so I slowly walked up to the gate. I extended the telescope tripod praying the bird would not fly off but thankfully it remained absolutely and resolutely still. Immobile and feeling secure behind the skeletal bramble that was partially screening it. Surely if it was a Ring Ouzel it would be disappearing into the far yonder at the slightest hint of my presence? They always do, as they are typically shy and wary when encountered here, never tolerating anything remotely like a close approach. I got the scope on it. It hopped out of cover and back onto the path. It had it's back to me. Stranger still it had some white flecks on it's head. Just another aberrant Blackbird? Not a bit of it, the body feathers were dark brown but unlike a female Blackbird were delicately fringed with white giving it an attractive scaly pattern all over it's body. The pale wings were in fact the buff white fringes to the flight feathers, bunched up and forming a long pale panel on the closed wing. It turned and there in unequivocal confirmation was a muted but still distinctive pale buff gorget across the breast, also scaled but this time with delicate black fringes. It was a female Ring Ouzel and the closest I have ever got to one. It seemed oblivious or uncaring as to my presence and slowly worked it's way up the path towards me rather than away, although never coming much closer than thirty metres.
In the scope magnification it appeared huge and I could study every aspect of it in almost minute detail. I noted how the scaling became more pronounced, whiter and broader on the belly feathers, the bill was bright yellow at the base, the white flecks on it's head were random white feathers, chiefly on the nape and it's tail appeared longer than that of a Blackbird. Eventually it either sensed my presence or decided it was too close to me and quietly chuckled to itself and flew up onto a fence post. Glory of glories.What a fantastic sight as it perched here, in the early morning sun, for what seemed an age, fully in the open and in my scope, not thirty metres away. Then it quietly dropped back onto the downland turf and recommenced feeding. It disappeared from view and I indulged in some quiet contemplation. Looking back uphill on the path some time later, the Ring Ouzel had re-appeared. I had now been watching it, on and off, for an hour. No one else was present, which was a surprise, as often there can be quite a few birders here looking for ouzels, but not today.
I walked slowly back up the hill and the Ring Ouzel hopped off along the path in front of me. It seemed reluctant to leave. We progressed like this for some time, alternately stopping and starting, watching each other, and I got closer and closer. Redwings and Blackbirds fled my presence but not the Ring Ouzel. It eventually allowed me to approach within ten metres and in the end we just stood in mute communion. I had just come back from a holiday in North Africa and the Ring Ouzel had spent it's winter there. We were as one in this mutually selected spot. Our very different lives joined by serendipity for this all too brief moment.