Thursday, November 17, 2011

A running sky

After yesterday's post about phobias, I was talking with my colleague (the one who's frightened of birds), telling her of the starling roost near my house. At least they're at a distance, she said, making those fancy patterns in the sky. So I began to explain that at Plumstone...

She cut me off; couldn't bear to hear more.

But as you don't share her fears, I thought you might like a short extract from my forthcoming book. It's taken from an essay about the roost and I'm describing why Plumstone is so different to other roosts.

I'll let the words say the rest.

If I describe the starlings to friends the response is always similar. There is mention of their flight, the swirling forms; comparisons to kaleidoscopes, oil on water, even Disney’s Fantasia. It seems we are fascinated by their synchronicity; the apparently random yet tightly choreographed swarming, the swoops and falls and joy and delight of it all.
And most have a story to share. We’re aware of starlings gathering in cities, under piers, on marshes and reed beds; one colleague talked of the flocks she’d seen on the American Plains. Starling roosts are a seasonal staple of television shows like Spring Watch and Countryfile. On the Somerset Levels, they are promoted as a tourist attraction.
Yet when I listen to these reports they don’t resonate.  It took me a while to realise why, though the answer should perhaps have been obvious. We tend to view starlings from afar. Indeed any description of the swarming presupposes we are at a remove.
What I so loved about Plumstone was the opposite.
To visit the roost that winter was to be amongst the birds. At Plumstone the starlings fly over your head; on a heavy night, they will literally touch your hair. There will be hundreds by your feet, on the wires and fences, more on the barns and hedges – drinking from pools, chattering on perches, flushed skyward by the raptors. There’s a pair of resident goshawks that make their kills above the wooded break; a peregrine once stooped yards from where I stood, barrel rolling to clasp its prey from below.
Then there’s the stream of chatter and the overpowering stench of guano. Three months of a million plus birds and the copse stinks of sweet lime. If I walked in the trees I could stand under the roost, the sky reduced to starlight by the bursting branches, my boots sticky and my coat peppered with droppings...


  1. We had one winter evening when the starlings descended en masse..every branch, every twig, even the ground was covered
    I went out with the camera and disturbed them - they took off, formed a group and changed direction...the clap of their wings was like a breaking of the sound barrier.

  2. great photo, I have never managed to snap "our" starlings.

  3. Ah... you know it's poetry when you make even the thought of being shat on beautiful...

  4. Hello Mark:
    It is, as you say, so very true that we tend only to view the starlings in massed flight from a distance. That is so with us where, from our Brighton windows, we see them circling the pier, soaring above our house, but always from afar. The Plumstone experience must be absolutely remarkable.

  5. I too have only seen starlings swarming from a distance, so thank you for that glimpse into a close encounter with them. Fascinating and also a tempting taster of the forthcoming book.

  6. don't get me started on starlings....
    I hate the buggers....
    last year a vast flock took over my field and stripped all of the hen food in seconds... smaller numbers returned cost me a fortune!
    pretty to look at...... horrible to cope with

  7. One year in Mallorca we had to get up at 3am to go to the starlings' roost and record the directions in which they dispersed for the day. To go from complete silence to 2 million birds tweeting away in the reeds was quite something!

  8. I think this experience would either kill or cure your colleague with the phobia.
    I'd like to be in the thick of it like you were. It does us humans good to feel slightly overwhelmed by other species from time to time.