Britain’s teenagers have embraced portable MP3 technology to admire the latest releases from divas including Adele, Jessie J and Lady Gaga. But this year scientists are taking the lightweight players to our highest hills and mountains to help them appreciate singers of a completely different kind.
The ring ouzel, otherwise known as the mountain blackbird, is a bird which inhabits the highest and wildest countryside of Britain and Ireland. However, the song of this rugged bird has been fading away from some areas and scientists want to find out why the bird is disappearing from so many of its former haunts. The scientists will be using MP3 players – loaded with a track of the bird’s song – to establish where the birds are breeding during the second UK-wide ring ouzel survey, this year. In 1999, the scientists needed to take bulky cassette recorders and speakers to achieve the same result.
The survey partnership includes the RSPB, Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW). The survey will begin as the birds return to their upland nesting sites – from the end of March – from their wintering grounds in the mountains and hills of North Africa and southern Spain.
The first national survey, which took place in 1999, revealed that the ring ouzel was disappearing from several upland areas where it was formerly widespread, including parts of Scotland, south Wales and large swathes of Ireland. The birds last nested in Shropshire in 2004 and on Exmoor a little earlier. In most areas it is believed to have declined alarmingly over the last century. In 1999, there were thought to be fewer than 7,500 pairs nesting in the UK. The declines were so marked that the ring ouzel was added to the red list of the Birds of Conservation Concern in 2002.
Innes Sim is an RSPB scientist who has been studying the bird for 14 years in Scotland. He said: “The ring ouzel has a beautiful song and it sings on some of our most wonderful stages, such as the highest mountains of Scotland, Wales and England. I have been studying these birds in Scotland since 1998 and I am deeply alarmed by its widespread and deepening disappearance: the hills would be lonelier without them.”
CCW senior ornithologist Sian Whitehead said: “The status of ring ouzels in Wales continues to be a cause for concern, and so we welcome this year’s survey. This will provide a much-needed update on the status of this bird that is so iconic of the uplands of Wales.”
Allan Drewitt, a senior ornithologist with Natural England, said: “There is currently no accurate estimate of the ring ouzel’s population – this survey will tell us how many are left and where they are, and that gets us one step closer to understanding why they’re disappearing and how we can help bring them back.”
Andy Douse, an ornithologist with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) said: “This is a species in decline at the moment and the survey will give us a better understanding of this decline and should also give us more information about the pressure it may be facing. We are absolutely committed to this survey which will paint a clearer picture of the changes affecting this upland species.”
The scientists play a recording of the bird’s song at specific points. By observing the responses from male ring ouzels in the area, the scientists can establish the breeding status of any birds found.
Although scientists can’t fully explain the bird’s disappearance, recent research suggests a reduction in the survival of young and, possibly, adult birds may be to blame. Factors on the bird’s breeding and wintering grounds, or during migration, may include: climate change; changes in livestock grazing which can affect the bird’s nesting and feeding areas; hunting in Europe; and a reduction in the amount of juniper berries, which are the bird’s principal food source on the wintering grounds.