I am feeding the farmland birds (on a grand scale) for the last time this season, driving round the depleted wild bird cover plots in the 4WD Gator, spinning out seed like gold dust from the hopper behind me. The songbirds are all nesting or moved on now, but they are all set up for the breeding season.
I scan hill, gorse and sky for newly arrived migrant birds. A lone swallow flits among singing skylarks and on the cropped grass, with the cowslips just coming through, a linnet and a meadow pipit feed alongside four suddenly exotic-looking wheatear, all within the focus of my binoculars.
It is grey and chilly. As I drive over the hill for the second time, thirty blackbirds rise from the steep ‘t’-shaped covert of scrub below me, half their number perching in a small hawthorn. This is odd. Blackbirds are solitary and our resident birds are nesting. With mounting excitement and astonishment, I realize they are ring ouzels on passage from Africa to our airy uplands. They pass through here each spring and autumn, but I’ve never seen more than 4 together in my entire life.
Low cloud is misting across – but there, undeniably, across the breast of the birds in varying degrees of brightness, is the wide pale collar of the mountain blackbird. There are several males; coal black with bright white ‘gorgets’, but mostly, the birds are females or juveniles with warm, duskier collars over brown-black. On each bird, fringed feathers are picked out like scales in silver or copper filigree. None of the birds have the blackbird’s gold ring around the eye and their bills, all pointed wistfully south, are a duller yellow. They look like birds cast in pewter and bronze.
On my return, there are 6 birds on rising ground bathed in a little warm sunlight. Three males face me, a mezzaluna of dazzling-white like a torc around each neck.
By the following day, I already know we have an ‘event’. That someone later counted 52 ‘rouzels’ on the hill. On their migration route up from France, bound for the lakes, peaks, moors and mountains of the North, our little range of almost-mountains provides the next convenient high ground to rest upon. A quirk in the weather perhaps meant they did not stop on making landfall, but put down here instead; a similar event was reported in the Chilterns.
My heart swells with pride for this landscape; its sanctuary more poignant for knowing these birds have dodged Maltese guns, come out in macabre, celebratory force this year, having won the Spring hunting vote (illegal under EU law anyway) by the narrowest of heartbreaking margins. Our hill seems all the bigger for it. A true mountain of the mind.