The Zoologist/4th series, vol 3 (1899)/Issue 699/The haunt of the Ring-Ouzel (''Turdus torquatus''), Trollope
THE HAUNT OF THE RING-OUZEL
By C. Trollope.
Some birds seem to belong to all scenery alike; others love only the waste common land, the stream, or the sea-shore; while a third division, οἱ εκλετόι, are only to be found in one or two favoured counties in the whole of England. Of these last are the Ring-Ouzels. Dartmoor, the hills of Derbyshire, the Yorkshire Moors, are perhaps the best known of their summer haunts, but there is a little-known nook of Western Herefordshire to which they come with unfailing regularity. There they have entrenched themselves among the wild hills known in the Ordnance map as the Black Mountains; and there, in the May of this year, I journeyed with a friend whose love of birds at least equals, if I will not allow that it surpasses, my own, to see them at home.
The way to the dingle which the Ring-Ouzels love, took us first through a country—the country around the foot of these hills—which was curiously like some out-of-the-way corner of Brittany. The small rough fields, where gorse takes up much space from the poor grass; the small fields of hand-sown wheat; the tall hedges, sweet with bird-cherry, with pink crab trees, with yet sweeter may blossom; the brown babbling trout-stream running down the valley; the white rough homesteads; the small farms of so few acres, farmed by the holders with slow toil and antiquated methods, and not by hired labourers who must needs bring their work up to the perfection which he who pays for labour naturally requires:—all this had some unique foreign charm, and recalled another country, dwelt in, as this, by dark-haired Celts, who cling with a like dogged faith to their own inherited thoughts, methods of work, superstitions not a few.
The way to the hills leads through such a country as this, but when the mountains are reached civilization disappears, and spring too, although it is the latter end of May. In the sheltered dampness, indeed, under slabs of rock, the Cystopteris fragilis and the gleaming white flowers of the familiar wood sorrel are seen, and always inseparable; and on the lower edges of the hill, where the little streams soak out, we found the butterwort in abundance, its parchment-like leaves with their curled edges shining out starlike in the still wintry grass. But on the mountain-top, where other and stranger plants grow among the dark bog-pools, there was as yet no sign of summer life. Only the diminutive Luzula spicata did what it could to make colour, with its golden anthers gleaming from brown flowers amidst the waste of heather, which had as yet put out no spring shoots. We only saw one butterfly, a Pieris napi, and that seemed half asleep, perhaps wholly disappointed in a world too wet for its fresh wings. The only links with the spring, the almost summer indeed, of the valley were the numbers of Common Heath moths which were fluttering among the heather, undismayed by the showery day.
We had to cross two wild heather-clad hills before we reached the Ring-Ouzels' haunt, but when we reached it we owned that they were birds of taste. At the head of their dingle two hills join, and there a waterfall runs down, its course marked among the rocks by brightest green of soft, cushiony moss, by tufts of Nephrodium dilatatum. The scene was desolate wildness, bounded on the west by the steep rocks and the waterfall, on the north and south by the two bare mountain sides, while on the east stretched the at first narrow valley, with its brawling stream. The mountains were patterned over by great stones, by larger slabs of fallen rock, by patches of heather, black, tragic, in colour as if burnt, and showing yet no tinge of spring green, by patches of bilberry covered by pinky green leaves and a few pink flowers, but which in the distance and in the mass seem only a dull sullen yellow. Only one tree broke the straight sky-line of the solemn mountains, a rowan tree growing high up amid the rocks, and as yet destitute of leaves.
It was a land of waters. I tried, as I sat and waited for the coy Ring-Ouzels, to think of "the silence which is among the hills," but the thought did not do. The air was full of the noise of the water-pipes: water leaping down the head of the dingle, water murmuring on down the valley, water springing out of the mountain sides and sliding over the grass in narrow streams which had not had time to make a channel for themselves, water spreading out into spongy places or disappearing suddenly under ground, whence we still heard it trickling mysterious, like water in a dream, and reappearing many feet lower down the mountain slope.
At first we seem to see no bird, except a little lonely Wren who sings persistently, its voice rising shrill above the water-pipes. And, crossing the mountain, Meadow Pipits had been our constant companions; but here, in the dingle, there seemed to be no bird in the universe save that solitary Wren.
Yes. After that patient waiting which all bird lovers know so well, a Rock Dove, blue, smaller by many inches than our familiar Wood Pigeon and of less swift flight, flew out from the rocks by the waterfall and crossed the ravine. They build here in community, and once a wanderer, who often rambles lonely through these untrodden ways, caught one in his hand on its rude nest on a ledge or rock—such was its ignorance, its sweet trustfulness. And as he let it go into the sunlight he saw the sheen of iridescent green on its lustrous breast, and remembered that centuries ago the Dove's feathers of "pale-green gold" had been noticed, and perhaps loved, under far-away skies.
Then the Wheatears appeared from we knew not where, flitting restlessly from rock to rock, and uttering a soft and sweet callnote. Their song, sung so often to the listening waste alone, we did not hear; but we found a nest. For as we went up a little sheep track a bird slipped out from under a great slab of rock and flew up the dingle, showing no further anxiety for its treasures. And there, far under the stone as arm could reach, in darkness and in damp, was the warm nest and four eggs of faded blue.
Soon the Ring-Ouzels began to show themselves, but the eye so loses itself on these wide still wastes, amid the spacious simplicity of great sky and great mountain, that it is difficult at first to follow these little specks of flitting life or to mark them with our field glasses. And, if the truth must be told, in the hours spent among them we added little or nothing to the information with which our books provided us. The birds would not come anear or suffer us to come near them. They kept indeed a suspicious eye upon us, flitting in the direction in which we walked, perching on heather or slab of rock to watch our movements, but always far away. Their loud bravura song we never heard; nor did they utter that harsh alarm cry for which we listened. But we had had, at least, the joy of penetrating to the heart of their mountain fastnesses, their sanctuary among the hills; and henceforth we knew the Ring-Ouzels as we should never have known them had we not seen them on their native heath.