Sunday, 16 November 2014

November 15th 2014 - Starlings - An emotional connection

It was the writer BB who in 'Amid the Tangled Thorns'* wrote of the starling coming to roost near his Northampton home:

"As evening fell, and the owls began to hoot, I would hear and see starling flocks wheeling about overhead in a sort of tribal dance which went on until sundown, when one by one the black birds would drop like stones into the tall straggling thorns above me and there continue their deafening chatter for a while."

In this article, BB also mentions starlings coming to a city roost, presumably for warmth. This stirred a memory in me that has remained vivid for over 40 years.

As a child away from schooling, my winters were a mixture of semi rural living and, especially as Christmas approached, city shopping. I lived in a large rambling late Victorian terrace house which for reasons never fully explained sat incongruously as a pale monolith comprising 4 white terrace houses amidst a surrounding green sea of farmland,  market gardens, a spectacularly spooky rural cemetery and a golf course (my bedroom overlooked the first green).  As a child I had a vast playground on my doorstep, yet this was a mere 7 miles from the bright light city bustle of Newcastle Upon Tyne.

Newcastle today is magical regeneration city, yet back then, and I'm referring to the early 1970's, my visits to Newcastle on a winter's afternoon were thrilling for another reason. The lights, the noise, the hubbub of city folk, the shop windows - and above all of that - as dusk fell, the starlings. As we trudged up Northumberland Street or down Clayton Street, above us the deafening roar of many many thousands of starlings echoed around the man-made canyon we trod. Like their human counterparts heading in the opposite direction, these starlings were commuting into the city from their daytime rural foraging areas to roost. Virtually impossible to count, these black specks jostled and squabbled for the best real estate on the block. Sitting shoulder to shoulder wedged along a ledge they overlooked the human scene far below, reminiscent of monks in their dark robes gathered for vespers. And, like any religious evensong, only turning their heads to sing or call. Every imaginable ledge, every roof space and every archway played domicile to the developing cacophony of the sociable starling.  I can still remember as a child hearing their chattering above the humanitarian sounds from the street, before almost imperceptibly the birds fell silent and the cityscape sounds dominated once more. Christmas shopping and dodging starling droppings in a noisy man made landscape are forever interlinked. Sadly now the starlings are prevented from roosting in Newcastle and are to be found in a wilder landscape to roost.

It was a rural landscape that I found myself in yesterday, the Somerset Levels to be precise. The Levels are well known for their starling murmurations at dusk, an atmospheric ballet as thousands come in to roost amongst the reeds. Thanks to a lot of coverage by the media, especially television, the winter weekends down on the Levels can be as busy as any high street awash with the festive shopper. However I'd not come to see this, I trod a careful path along the reserve well before dawn in almost pitch darkness. I'd come to see the starlings take off.

This was a first for me, and for Julie, who joined me.  I'd seen and heard this dawn spectacle many times from a distance, via sound recordings or secondhand encounters with other naturalists. But, I'm ashamed to say that even though I am generally an early riser anyway, I'd not made the effort before to leave the house at 5am to witness this myself, a mere 25 minutes drive away. Today was that day. The night before Julie and I agreed we'd push the boat out and be ready to leave sharp at 5am. As it happened we were so excited that by 3am we were both chatting away while having breakfast and making the obligatory flask of coffee.  Dawn vigils are such a thrill but one thing I have discovered is that one can get cold very quickly - strong coffee is always a godsend.

Two other people were at the reserve but that was it, and just before 6.30am we were in position, alone in the world and looking out over a serene half light. To the east the morning light was already renting the dark horizon providing enough illumination to reflect on the calm scene in front of us. Small groups of wigeon wheezed overhead.  Not a breath of wind stirred the water which, mirror like, provided a stunning backdrop to the land, sky and a small party of mute swans at leisure before dawn. A tawny owl hooted in the far distance, and a kingfisher piped its alarm behind, but that was all, near silence.

Was that a low chattering sound floating over the surface towards us? It was almost impossible to hear.  I listened intently, yes that's them. Turning to Julie I told her to listen, she could hear them too. They'd started.

And so had the mist. Patchy mist had dogged our journey to the Levels but on arrival the moonlight was strong over the landscape. As often happens however the arrival of dawn moves the sleeping atmosphere and like a spectral being, thick mist emerged from the lake adding atmosphere to an already emotional view. We moved position slightly to be nearer the centre of the sound and as we did so the calls of possibly 100,000 starlings grew from a wall of noise to thousands of individual birds, each note jostling for dominance with its neighbour. It was time for a coffee and to sit with half a dozen other people at the viewpoint and wait. On, on came the noise, wave after wave of tumultuous chorus echoed around the reed bed. Soon small parties of starlings began to hedge hop, or should that be reed hop from one area to another, never high enough to arise suspicion by any passing predator.

Soon the pitch and notes began to change, they were getting ready for that mass lift off which some nature writers have described as an express train passing close by. It was quite light now, after 7am, yet  mist made it difficult to see what was happening. We had to focus on the noise, now pulsing through the reeds, intermingled with the odd higher pitch. Was this the starling commander blowing his whistle? "Come on chaps, over the top, last one to Westhay buys the drinks"

The noise was deafening, we humans were dwarfed by the sound just metres in front of us. And then it went quiet.

The roar that followed took us all by surprise. This was no express train but a sound resembling a huge storm wave hitting a shingle shore. It alerted us to a massed lift off. To our left, following some unknown signal,   starlings erupted individually from the reeds at speed, but viewed en-mass as if in slow motion, like a black powder cloud billowing over the battlefield. So dense was this cloud it obliterated everything beyond it. Seconds later another roar just beyond, another eruption of black, yet another behind that, a third wave. The air was filled with life, a kaleidoscope of black spiralled across the dawn sky, over the reeds in formation. Individual birds making a break for the opposite side of the open water, joined by their comrades. It was 7.13am.

In the mist this break of cover resembled the creation of a physical bridge from reedbed to reedbed. So many birds flew over this area that for nearly 5 minutes the bridge existed where it had not existed before. As the front troops crossed and dropped into cover beyond, more flew in behind and joined them. A colossus of movement, an amorphous mass of wingbeats, the place was alive with pulsating black powder billowing in form. The last troops safely over the bridge disappeared but the whole were now held within the reeds to the left. Squabbling, rising, half-heartedly making breaks for open cover, the confusion of these starling battalions seemed palpable. A loose group broke cover as a black river began to surge along a hedge line and away towards the Mendip Hills. Another river flowed to the south between some trees and before too long the whole landscape in front of us stopped moving and fell silent. It was 7.20am and the sun was just breaking the skyline and a lone female marsh harrier quartered the reeds for the walking wounded. 

The now empty landscape was still beautiful, still there, we had connected for a few short minutes to one of nature's unparalleled spectacles. Retracing our steps back to the car the landscape was bathed in a soft buttermilk glow of a November morning. The mist had lifted and other birdwatchers bristling with optics were now arriving to observe the reserves' other birds in daylight.

Had we just witnessed something that has happened for centuries across Britain? Did those who in ancient times walked the Sweettrack across this marsh witness the black cloud during their hunting trips? Presumably yes although we don't know the population of starlings back then. As a child the starlings of Newcastle were part of what made me follow a path into nature conservation, a drip-drip of many wildlife encounters that got under my skin. I didn't need equipment then to feel the force of nature, and yesterday I didn't need equipment to see the sight before me, I felt it, we felt it, we certainly heard it and above all that handful of people in amongst the reeds connected with the power nature can awaken and stir in the primeval imaginations within all of us. I may have been fifty years old when I saw this for the first time but I'll remember it until my last breath.

BB was correct when he said "...one moment there is not one in sight, the next you have a black mass, resembling a horde of shiny beetles*". Today I saw that too, but in reverse.

Sadly people of Newcastle are no longer able to relive my naturalist awakening by the starling as I once did.

*'Amid the Tangled Thorns' from The Naturalist's Bedside Book by BB, published 1980.


  1. I first came to Newcastle in 1975 and I can vividly recall those awesome flocks of starlings (and their noise!) as I walked down Dean St. to the Quayside at dusk. Thanks for reviving those memories!

  2. It was a sight and sound I can still recall, embedded in my memory without realising it at the time. Thanks for the comment Phil

  3. You made me feel as if I was there with you guys. Wonderful writing. What a spectacle it must have been.

  4. Thank you Oldcrow - it really is a fantastic sight - do you have anything similar in Newfoundland?