Thursday, November 1, 2012

Starling season

Near to my house is the largest starling roost in Wales.  In a few weeks, the birds will start making their nightly trip to a small fir copse on Plumstone Mountain; the raptors will wait as the sun dips to the sea, and a so will begin one of the greatest avian spectacles in the UK.

For now, many of the birds are roosting at Slebech on the upper Daugleddau estuary. The early reports suggest numbers are high. To reach Plumstone the starlings will fly over Arnolds Hill, a low hump of the southern horizon when viewed from the winter roost.

My book, Counting Steps, includes an essay about the starlings - it's titled, Looking For Smoke Over Arnold's Hill.  An extract was recently printed in Booktime Magazine.

I hope you enjoy it.

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 a 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.

The following summer I took to watching birds at the coast. I never did that list-ticking thing, though I’d often drive to Strumble to look for auks, or walk to St David’s Head to watch the gannets diving off Ramsey. I liked best to go in the evening when occasionally there’d be shearwaters, flying low over the sea on their return to Skomer. 

But all this was at a distance.

I missed the black shroud of the starlings, the closeness, the calling and the smell. By the following November I was back at Plumstone, looking for smoke over Arnold’s Hill.


  1. Hello Mark:
    They are, as you so beautifully describe them here, an extraordinary sight. When in Brighton they swoop over our roof top to swirl around, as you will know of course, the old pier. We return to the UK briefly later this month and do hope that we shall not be too late for this most amazing spectacle.

  2. While we used to see the flocks from afar, one year we had them in the field alongside us...hardly room for one more to touch down on the ground or in the hedges.

  3. The flocks don't appear round here, in fact I was beginning to wonder where the starlings had gone as they disappeared for over a month. Suddenly this morning, there were two in the garden, feasting on the fatballs as usual. They tend to hog these, given the chance, such lovely plumage they have but they are a bit thuggish, the Mitchell brothers this morning just wouldn't let anyone else near the fatballs. But I wonder where they went? There were none in the area at all, and usually there are several groups in the gardens hereabouts. Perhaps they went on holiday, got fed up with the lack of sunshine and had a mini break somewhere?
    Great post, and I saw from my blog roll that someone else was singing the praises of your lovely book.

  4. Articles about starlings always take me back to this time of the year in Mallorca when we used to count the starlings' murmuration before and after roosting time. It was a wonder to behold and counting 2 million+ living, whirling things is quite a skill!

    I've decided not to do NaBloPoMo this year. I'm getting out and about and commenting instead. The blog's birthday is tomorrow, so I will have an extra celebration at the CW Awards :)

  5. Beautifully crafted piece Mark. There's a muscular sensitivity about your language use. I did enjoy the excerpt, thanks.

    (And yes, I love Starlings - but I admit to enjoying them better from afar).

  6. I have only ever seen starlings in tiny numbers, so your photo is deeply impressive, even scary, and the description from your essay very evocative.