Starlings at dusk, RSPB Ham Wall

Occasional contributor to Normal For Glastonbury, David Taplin, has written this wonderfully lyrical description of the Starlings coming into roost at dusk on the Avalon Marshes, I hope you enjoy it.

“The land here is already soft and floating, the horizons low, and perspectives hard to judge as shadows start to creep.  Both the reeds and the gathered watchers whisper, and the sheer sense of expectation is palpable.  Faces scan the deep metallic sky and the cold begins to gently bite. Will they come?  What creates their decision to come to this spot, if indeed today they do?  We are waiting and hoping to be thrilled by something wonderful as the dusk seems to rise from the ground beneath our socked and booted feet.  Will they come?  Yes, we knew where they were at this time yesterday, and many were lucky enough to see them there, but today no-one is sure, though speculation is rife. There!  By the trees!  Like those we’ve come to see, we turn in unison as a sudden heron glides low over the marsh toward us and vanishes silently into the deep reed-bed.  A beautiful but false alarm.  The lowering light is subtle, and somehow charged with our own hopes. Someone stamps their feet, and a flask of something warming is passed around.  And then   …   just there, look! A flicker in the sky, just a faint arabesque of shadow, and an audible intake of breath from the watchers – yes, they have come.  Every neck cranes, willing the dance on, and again that flicker and twist high in the November air; and tonight’s great sky-ballet begins overhead, silent and magnificent, as a hundred thousand and more starlings perform their incredible dance; shimmering, spinning, diving, swirling, suddenly turning as one, becoming a cloud, a ribbon and a second later a huge punctuation mark framed against the fading light. This is exquisite magic, and no amount of watching on-screen recordings can match actually seeing this living fantastical beauty – and not just the seeing;  a delight for which I was unprepared was that as the flocks swoop low overhead, the sigh of air is clearly audible too.  My hairs stand on end and I shiver slightly; not at the cold, which is forgotten, but just being here with these lovely creatures; they cannot surely have time to somehow communicate their moves to each other in advance, but must all be sharing a level of consciousness which is instantaneous, immediate and instinctive.  Often, when watching animals – and particularly birds – I have the strongest impression that they are at times doing nothing more – or less – than manifesting their sheer joy at being here and now and alive, and seeing these murmurations ( I do love some of the names given to gatherings of birds:  “parliaments”  and  “murders”  for example are of course utterly anthropomorphic, but then really what else can we be?) it’s very hard not to believe that the starlings at this moment are enjoying themselves at least as much as we are down here.  We can of course analyse and evaluate flocking behaviour in many animal groups, including our own species (potential protection against predation is often cited as explanatory), but all the same the kind of controlled abandon  we witness in these murmurations, coupled of course with the dramatic scenery and time of year where and when they occur,  inevitably gives us a whiff of wild and ancient joy;  and surely we ourselves are aspects of the living universe in the process of enjoying and marvelling at itself?  Too soon, the light fades, the chill creeps into our bones and the great flocks leave the sky empty of all but stars and settle down into the reeds for the night. Torches flicker on and we make our careful but contented way back to our cars, feeling transformed and blessed as if by a religious experience. “

As David says, video is a poor substitute for being there to witness this remarkable phenomenon, but if you can’t make it I hope this video I took in the days between Christmas and New Year gives you a flavour of it:

I’ve written a couple of pieces on the Somerset Levels, rather more prosaic than David’s offering, you can check them out here. The Avalon Marshes – Flat and Wet like Proper Scrumpy Cider  and Winter, Starlings and Snot. 

For more of David’s writing for Normal For Glastonbury please see Glastonbury Town In the Seventies and A Moving Tale.

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3 thoughts on “Starlings at dusk, RSPB Ham Wall”

  1. I’m sure they are enjoying themselves; I’m not a bird watcher or expert, but I wonder why the Robin lives a solitary life, though appears to be cheerful, while starlings are the opposite and opt for the safety, warmth and fun of the flock!

  2. Very few people know less about birds than me, Janet, but I have a suspicion that they’re at least as diverse and complex as we are; and a robin’s song never fails to make me feel all Blake-ish.


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