A good hot day in Galloway has brought on the spring in a sudden rush. Having just stepped indoors after a day on the hill, it’s worth reporting an extraordinary influx of wheatears, the first few willow warblers of the season and a phenomenal glimpse of a female ring ousel. This is the first ring ousel I’ve ever seen on the Chayne, and it was bouncing tamely around on some of the in-bye fields where the tups had their feet up in the sunshine. This terrain is nothing like the kind of ground I’d usually reckon as classic “ousel” territory, and it’s likely that the bird was just stopping in for a moment on its passage northwards to breed in the Highlands.
Ring ousels have declined in southwest Scotland to such an extent that this once common bird is reckoned to be extinct as a breeding bird in Galloway. Despite this gloomy assessment, I know of two nesting sites where ring ousels have bred near me on the wild, rough hill country in Dalbeattie Forest, and there are other places where I think they are holding on. As ever, the difficulty of getting a real perspective on breeding bird populations is compounded by the fact that so much of this area is horrendously rough and almost totally inaccessible to all but the most determined bushwhacker.
Ousels pass back through Galloway in reasonable numbers in the autumn on their way back down to their Mediterranean wintering grounds, and they can be easily found in a few locations where the rowan berries offer a nutritious boost. This is the first time I’ve seen a bird on spring passage, and I wonder how often I must have missed them or simply overlooked them as blackbirds.
Further North, there are some really good places for ring ousels in Angus and Aberdeenshire, and a gamekeeper friend near Banchory has several ousel nests on his beat. The birds seem to like nesting on steep banks of rank heather with short patches of grass and heather nearby for foraging – grouse moor management provides this in spades, and the highest density of ousels I ever saw was on a moor in the Peak District above the Derwent Reservoir on ground which had been mowed and burnt in an experimental grid-iron pattern by a sporting tenant. Frustratingly, the land was owned by the National Trust who (for no obvious scientific reason) later forbade the trapping of stoats and weasels up the scrubby cleughs where the ousels often lurked. Perhaps inevitably, these beautiful birds have been sorely reduced in number ever since.