Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Where is the elegy for the mountain blackbird?


I can clearly remember the moment I first saw a ring ouzel. I was 17. It was in the Easter holidays and I had gone hiking in Snowdonia with my friend Chris, and one bright morning we left Bala and tramped along the side of Llyn Celyn, at that time a controversial new reservoir, and then struck upwards into the hills, over the open moorland to Ysbyty Ifan.

When we got out on the high tops, suddenly to the north there was a striking peak visible in the distance, still covered in snow in April: it was Moel Siabod. And at that same moment, while I was lost in admiration of the far shining summit, I saw out of the corner of my eye that there was a bird bouncing around the nearby rocks, a black bird with a flash of white, and I realised with a thrill it was something which until then I had only seen in books.

The ring ouzel: the mountain blackbird. Like the blackbird of our gardens (it's closely related), except that it has a white, crescent-shaped band across its breast, and you have to head for the hills to see it, and it disappears in the winter. It migrates back to Africa, but not across the Sahara like most of our migrant summer visitors: it only goes as far as the Maghreb, to Algeria and Morocco (and some birds get no farther than southern Spain). And there, down there on the slopes of the Moroccan Atlas mountains, may be the problem: for a problem there certainly is, somewhere along the line. The ring ouzel is rapidly disappearing from many parts of upland Britain and nobody really knows why.

Right now the birds that remain are arriving back here for the breeding season, and this summer a group of scientists will be carrying out a nationwide ring ouzel survey to try to get a fresh idea of the scale of the decline.

It's already been suggested that the bird may be a victim of climate change, perhaps because higher temperatures in our mountains in late summer harden the ground and make earthworms more difficult to find for the young birds; perhaps because changing spring rainfall patterns in Morocco affect the quantity of juniper berries, which are the bird's principal winter food. But no one knows for certain. All that is certain is that the bird is vanishing.

I find this very troubling, for two reasons. The first is the loss of the bird itself, such a splendid spirit which is a sort of extra for the mountains, something which makes those special places a degree more special; almost a reward for the effort you have to put into getting up there, as the distant view of Moel Siabod was a reward.

I find it hard to take that it has already disappeared, for example, from the Shropshire hills, and is no longer flitting around the mysterious slopes of Stiperstones and the Long Mynd. A part of their enchantment is gone.

But the second reason is perhaps a less obvious one. It is this: in our culture we have no way of adequately marking the loss. We do not have the meaning-making. We have the meaning-making for human losses – we have our funeral ceremonies and memorial services – but not for those in the natural world. And even though we may be alive to the really big losses, the destruction of rainforests, the killing of the great whales – what solemnising do we have for the loss of the small, individual species, as they go, one after another, while the world degrades around us?

Who is to write the elegy for the ring ouzel? Having seen and delighted in this bright spark of summer life high in the mountains, I feel instinctively that its disappearance is not an affair of no consequence. But who is to show us how it matters, in this world full of a million other more pressing concerns? Who is to show us how to mourn it?

If the answer is no one, that seems to me as big a gap in our lives as the loss of the bird itself.

Magic in the night sky courtesy of Venus and Jupiter

I have heard several people remark what a blessing it is that the arrival of British summertime last weekend has coincided with a period of wonderful spring weather; and there has been a third blessing – the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter.

The two planets have been adorning the same part of the western evening sky for a week, with Venus, the higher one, so bright you could mistake it for a plane with its landing lights on, but Jupiter still instantly noticeable. (Look through a telescope and you may see its moons.)

Two days ago the planets were joined by a crescent moon; it looked as if someone had hung party lamps in the heavens. Orion was just to the left of them, the three stars in his belt pointing down to Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, yet far outshone by the two planets. An unforgettable sight.;

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