Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Two million and one

Starling roost - Pembrokeshire
Today, I returned to my house in Wales. When I arrived I noticed there were crusty droppings on the floor, not unlike the body fluid that moths squirt if disturbed. Strange to find these in December - and so many of them; on the window sills, the cupboard doors, the bathroom sink. I noticed too, dusty marks on the ceiling and walls.

On the floor of my bedroom lay the body of the culprit. It was a young starling; I suppose it came down the chimney and become trapped, eventually dying from lack of food and water - perhaps from panic. It must have happened recently, the body was soft and sleek; decay not set in.

As I disposed of the corpse, it struck me what a beautiful bird the starling is. The feather pattern is a pearlescent blue-black, changing form and colour with the angle of the light. A starlings head is small with a dark green eye that in this case remained open, it's beak dagger sharp, longer and more elegant than I realised. The whole body weighed no more than few ounces. It's wings opened one last time as I flung it into the field beyond my garden.

An hour later I stood under two million more.

Every evening in winter, up to three million starlings gather in a small copse of trees near my house. It is the largest roost in Wales, and an extraordinary sight to witness. People I tell about it, often ask if the birds swirl in fish-ball patterns, keen to hear of a spectacular aerial display. Sometimes the starlings do this, but more often, and especially when it is cold, they fly straight to the trees. It is not a disappointment.

For thirty minutes this evening the sky was black with their arriving; at one point they were literally brushing our heads, the din of their collective chattering like a river in spate. Amongst them flew buzzards, a sparrow hawk and evidently two goshawks had been there earlier. As the sun set over St Brides Bay, the silhouettes of the late comers were streaking against an orange and purpling sky.

To stand under that many birds is surprisingly beautiful. And I realised tonight it is the closeness to them which makes it so. The swirling displays are spectacular when they happen, but usually they take place at a distance. Like the bird I found in my house, it is the physical presence, the tactile sense of something  beyond us, that best allows us to see the world differently.

What a welcome home.


  1. A grand welcome home indeed Mark. Merry Christmas to you and yours. Enjoy. :-)

  2. Birds are always a welcome sight, not so much dead, but definitely when they're alive and free.

  3. What an awesome sight that must be. How blessed to have such a large roost near your home in Wales. I know of a neighbour who had not one but about twenty starlings come down her chimney and this caused tremendous damage.

    They are certainly beautiful birds when you get the chance to look at them close up, as you did.

  4. Hi Mark,
    The Starling is certainly a very pretty bird when viewed up close.
    I wish you and your family a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
    I will drop by again in 2011.
    Seasons greetings

  5. There has been much news about these fantastic flights the birds make in the evening, I have seen several on television in recent months. Which makes me wonder, is it a new phenomenon, are there more birds making it more noticeable/spectacular, are people more aware of what's going on around them? We don't have anything like that, just thousands of pink-footed geese flying over twice a day, which is enough for me.

  6. Glad to see you got home! We are sitting tight here and going nowhere.
    I would love to see a starling flight in those numbers. Stunning.

  7. What a privilege, Mark. I would love to see it too. Amazing to have it right by your house. Starlings, once so common, are getting rarer and rarer. I never see any round here but I remember them from my childhood in Sussex. They are very beautiful in such an understated way - the subtle wing colour and that sharp beak you describe. Love you closing line/sentiment. So true. Have a wonderful Christmas with your family and thank you for your kind comments, as ever, over at mine. I love your blog too - always something surprising and thought-worthy, and rather peaceful. Thankyou for another year of excellent writing.

  8. That is one sight I would travel a long way to see. You mention them almost brushing your head; do their wings make any sound that you can hear over the chattering?

  9. The wings do make an noise - loudest when they wheel and swirl in groups. It like rushing wind, with soft clapping when they change direction. The astonishing thing about the Plumstone roost is the nearness of the birds. When starlings roost in reed beds it is always at a distance and you are 'observing' - at Plumstone, they are are all around you; you are in the swarm, part of the experience.

    Two guys came last night, experienced birders - one of them was quite literally speechless, at one point gasping for his breath, almost in tears he was so overwhelmed.

    I have been to Asia to Africa, all over Europe and seen some impressive nature sights - but the roost along the road from my house is easily the most impressive.