Ham Wall Nature Reserve

Winter, Starlings and Snot.

It feels like everyone in Glastonbury has entered hibernation this Winter. I was anticipating a Christmas of open houses, parties and nights out, only to find myself glued to the sofa (possibly with my own nasal mucus) due to a cold which lasted for the entire festive season. Surfacing around New Year, looking forward to doing some socialising, it turned out that everyone else had their own variant of the lurgy, often accompanied by projectile vomiting, so most of the parties were cancelled. It’s surprising that in a town where every other person appears to be an expert in optimum nutrition and energy healing that we all seem to have got sick regardless.

You might have thought that I would use the festive break productively and written lots of material for this blog, unfortunately, I found myself utterly uninspired and incapable of even editing the half-written posts I have waiting to be finished and published. My astrologer friend informed me that this is to do with the planets all standing still, or being in Cancer, or something, I can’t quite remember. But anyway, it’s all due to get better soon, so that’s good.

Venturing into town in the hope of inspiration I find the streets and cafes quiet. The colour and bustle of the Summer a faded memory, with the townspeople bundled up in jumpers and woolly hats (though many of these are knitted in rainbow colours). The King Arthur pub has been lively and cheerful at least. Last night I chatted with some locals I knew only by sight who all turned out to be keen readers of this blog, and I found the chilli and ginger flavoured cider and local mead to be most excellently warming.

Just before dusk today, in an attempt to kick-start my body and mind into the New Year (it being two weeks into January already), I cycled over to Ham Wall Nature Reserve on the Levels to watch the Starlings coming in to roost on the reed beds. It’s an easy flat cycle from Glastonbury. See the excellent downloadable maps that take you all over the Levels by clicking here.

Somerset Levels (1)

I stopped on the way to interpret some strange hieroglyphics I spotted spray painted onto a fence at the start of the Sustrans cycle path. It took me a while to realise they read “Anarchy, Bedlam, Dog Vomit”. I continued my journey musing over how this message might be interpreted. Perhaps, in the absence of a bench to which a discreet plaque might be affixed,  it was a dedication to some dearly departed and imaginatively nicknamed old punks. Maybe they’d shared a caravan on that spot when it was a Traveller’s site in the 90’s, except I was a visitor to the site and I don’t remember anyone called Anarchy, Bedlam or Dog Vomit. More likely I decided that this arcane message was a dread warning – an updated reference to the four Horseman of the Apocalypse perhaps, only they’d forgotten one. Perhaps I will go back with a spray can and add ‘Piles’ or ‘Trump’.

I found Ham Wall Reserve full of massed flocks of birdwatchers. They generally stick together alongside the canal and in the hides, rather than venturing off around the lakes. Perhaps they were huddled together for safety, lest a grumpy middle aged blogger swooped down on them on her mountain bike, knocking them off the tarmacked security of the track and onto the grass, where presumably they would be sucked into the marsh and never seen again.

At this time of year, in their matching plumage of grey or camouflage puffa jackets, the ‘twitchers’ are virtually indistinguishable. The only way to differentiate the sexes is that is generally the males who sport the largest tripods, cameras and binoculars. According to the RSPB Ham Wall is host to the largest wintering flock of starlings in the UK. I guess they must come to see the bird watchers, it is quite a phenomena, with their constant chatter and the occasional plaintive screech of a cold and bored toddler who’d much rather be at home playing with Mummy’s iPad.

Having navigated the massed humans I locked up the bike and walked to my favourite spot on the reserve, where I always find impressively large flocks fly directly overhead. Tonight I was in luck, right next to the roosting site. If you’ve never seen starlings flocking in their millions I can only really compare it to a firework display. Of course, that would be a display in which the fireworks were set off all around you, only came in black, travelled horizontally with the ground rather than having a mostly upward trajectory, and made only whooshing sorts of noises rather than bangs. In case you find this analogy unhelpful here’s a short and not very good video I took on my phone for your enjoyment.

Walking back to my bike I bumped into my friends Gaz and Fiona. Around us we heard several people complaining that the birds ”hadn’t put on much of a display”, not having formed the huge and shifting shapes in the sky that the RSPB refer to as a ‘fantastic acrobatic mass’. The RSPB suggest that these shapes are a consequence of birds grouping together for safety in numbers – predators, such as falcons, finding it hard to pick off one bird in a flock of thousands. Perhaps even birdwatchers are so saturated in soap operas now that they can’t appreciate a natural spectacle unless it features sufficient peril and drama. Gaz remarked that he’d seen a few great Nike swooshes and perhaps the starlings should choreograph some other brand icons.

Somerset Levels (4)

I set off along the track for home, sad not to have bumped into Simon, another cycling starling fan, as I was getting rather peckish and last time I saw him we shared his chocolate digestives.

I wrote a less spurious piece about the many attractions to be found on the Avalon Marshes, including the starlings, last year. 

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