Ouzels and Thrushes

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Great photo by “CE” on http://www.brentorvillage.org/?page_id=133 – taken on Dartmoor but very similar terrain.

I took a different route up the hill last week in search of a specific roe buck. He’s an unusually big boy, and I wanted to have a closer look at his head. The last time I saw him he was still in velvet, but his antlers were thick and bulbous like a pair of oversized gloves. He would surely be too good to go in the freezer this year, but I carried the rifle on my back on the offchance of finding his little brother or perhaps a suitable yearling buck.

The steep face was littered with young birds. Stonechats purred over the heather, and young wheatears clicked and bobbed from every block of granite scree. On the lower ground, the thistleheads were being raided by every manner and hue of finch, and the hares covered their ears beneath the din. Further uphill, great crowds of thrushes flew chucking noisily over the bracken, landing in relays and bouncing over the scree. Families of thrushes often combine into these super-groups at this time of year, and I’m always unsure of  their objectives. Sometimes I think they’re raiding the blaeberries which are ripening beautifully in the undergrowth, but then I see them pulling up worms and leatherjackets from the better ground. Perhaps they’re doing both, but it’s always worth watching them as they pass over the hill in a noisy swathe.

There’s something weirdly unsettling about thrushes. Their body language is bizarrely reptilian, and the angle at which they hold their heads seems to accentuate their manic, glassy-eyed stares. These birds were being perpetually stirred up by something on a steep face above me, and I watched them rise to swirl up and away several times before returning mischievously to land in the same spot. I had to climb higher up the face before I realised that they were being attacked by a fine male ring ouzel who was determined to see them off his patch. I have seen this bird and his partner several times this year, but having taken my eye off the ball a little, I haven’t been sure how they have got on. The fact that he should be behaving so territorially gave me some hope that breeding might have been underway this year, and I made a note to return and spend some more time with these gorgeous birds before the season ends. His white bib flashed against the bracken as he harried another thrush away, and I left him panting furiously on the top of a broken boulder as I carried on uphill.

In the event, the buck I was looking for saw me first. At four hundred yards, he bounced away and vanished without giving me a good look. I took some consolation from a youngster on the edge of darkness, and I hauled the gangling carcass home through deep, fragrant beds of bog myrtle beneath the first stars.

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