Newnham Hill Ring Ouzels

The discovery by Chris Coe, yesterday, of a Ring Ouzel at Newnham Hill, a locality which has, in recent years, established itself as a regular spring stop-off site for this species, sparked some debate about its age and sex.

It was still present this morning and Dave Warner located another one accompanying it, both birds remaining until at least late afternoon. While frequently retiring to the cover of one of the hill’s many hedgerows, both could often be seen feeding out on the open grassy slopes.

The news went out initially as a female being present on the hill but images released later suggested to some, at least, that it was a male, due to the extent of the white bib and the general ‘darkness’ of the plumage.

Female Ring Ouzel, Newnham Hill, 30th April 2019 (Mike Alibone). Note some minor streaking on the neck and throat.

Ring Ouzel sexing is oversimplified by many publications, which suggest that the difference between the sexes is as stark as it is in Blackbirds, i.e. the male is jet black and the female is brown. In reality, it is not that simple and the difference in the ground colours between the sexes is far less marked than it is in Blackbirds. This was highlighted by Shirihai & Svensson in their publication Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds, which also includes many useful photographs to illustrate the point.

Female Ring Ouzel, Newnham Hill, 30th April 2019 (Mike Alibone). Note heavier neck streaking.

In truth, male Ring Ouzels are never as ‘black’ as male Blackbirds and females are often very dark brown and can even appear almost blackish in the field. In some instances, females can be almost indistinguishable from males and when you throw first-summer birds into the mix, then things become more complicated, with first-summer males often closely resembling adult females to the point of being almost indistinguishable.

Female Ring Ouzel, Newnham Hill, 30th April 2019 (Mike Alibone)

Typical adult males normally look obviously black and will have a striking, contrasting, ‘clean’ white bib, which ends in a point at each side. Adult females can ‘appear’ really quite blackish and can have the same extent of bib but it is not usually gleaming white, being sullied with brownish scales and/or with smudgy brownish bleeding into it from the breast, to some degree. The sides of the bib do not end in a point and they are rounded or even square-ended. First-summers of both sexes, if seen well or in the hand, should show a moult limit in the greater coverts, i.e. the unmoulted outer few have broad (depending on wear) pale fringes, compared to the inners, which are more narrowly-fringed or largely plain. Adults have the same narrow fringes across the greater coverts, with the difference not so marked as it is in first-summers.

Female Ring Ouzel, Newnham Hill, 30th April 2019 (Mike Alibone). Illustrates just how ‘brown’ these individuals are.

The Newnham Hill birds are both adult females. When seen well, their plumage is dark brown, not black, their bibs are ‘dirty’ and do not end in sharp points at the sides and the greater covert fringes are all of even width.

I was lucky to catch up with them both today and pleased to be able to watch them in such a nice setting. With its far vistas, plentiful cover and easily observable open areas, Newnham Hill would appear to offer more to the birder than nearby Borough Hill, which has become more popular with the general public and now suffers massively from human disturbance.

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