Starlings on the Fen

23 December 2017 // Birds

Matt Gaw goes in pursuit of a seasonal starling display

Taken from ‘A History of the Birds of Europe’ Vol. IV by Henry E. Dresser (1871-1881)

I drove past four starlings on the road to Redgrave & Lopham Fen. Rhinestone-coated ruffians, perched on a telephone wire in a conspiratory gaggle. Black shapes hunched against the pink, mackerel-striped evening sky. It seemed like a sign. An omen. But now I’m here, in a national nature reserve where I have come in the hope of catching a glimpse of a starling mumuration, there are none to be had.

I decide to walk west towards a spot where I have seen them gather before, close to where both the River Waveney and the Little Ouse bubble up through a mixture of chalk and peat. The path, raised up slightly above the reeds and dark pools to my left, skirts the fen. The weather has been cold this week and the landscape seems to have reacted. This whole place feels tightened and battened down. Still. Even my footsteps, cushioned by spongy black earth, are silent. The sun low in the sky, hangs, heavy and yellow over the trees that mark the reserve’s boundary. A giant, fresh yolk: ready to be pricked, split and run into darkness. As the light changes, the senses shift. Smells, taste and sounds gain prominence. I get tangs of iron, peat, vegetable and rot. The eyes adapt too, moving from retinal cone to rod. The sharpness goes and the colour drains, giving way to grey-scale and black. The light though, doesn’t so much as disappear but thicken and buzz: the rising dark almost tangible in the air like motes of dust.

The quiet is broken by the laugh of a duck. A cock pheasant, flushed from a patch of scrub, makes me jump as he claps off noisily overhead; heavy-chested and struggling to gain height, his call an uncomfortable throat-catching hiccup.

I check my watch and keep going. I can’t help thinking the starlings should have put in an appearance by now, swooping and diving as their merging flocks move from field to roost. It’s thought the winter murmurations happen for more than one reason: the birds, whose numbers are boosted by migrants, come together both for warmth and communication. But the displays are also about pure survival. The acrobatic synchronisation of the starlings’ flights is hypnotising not only to humans but also to predators: it is hard for a sparrowhawk or a peregrine to single out a bird from the rotating mass.

Walking through the patch of woodland that separates middle fen from little fen I can hear something. Beneath the call of corvids that are beginning their own call to roost is a bubbling chatter. Water on stone. An upwelling of noise, befitting any river source. Through the trees the sound is louder. The reeds hum and twitter with bird noise. The starlings, it seems, are already in bed. Two or three people, muffled against the night’s creeping chill, are standing around listening and filming with their phones. They say there was no show tonight; the birds diving straight into the reeds. As they talk a few stragglers demonstrate their point, arrowing straight down, their wings a whispered purr.

The sun has gone by the time I turn back. The afterglow faded and the night rising towards the last patch of brightness in the sky. The path now only lit by the white glow of birch bark. I am almost back to the car when I see the latecomers: a group of maybe 500 to 1,000 starlings coming across the fen. I can only just make them out. They pack close and expand in a heartbeat, the sudden changes in direction making it seem as if the birds are splitting and multiplying in front of my eyes. Iron filings whirling in response to some unseen magnet. I pull up my hood and watch them pulse and pull away from me towards the roost. Their movements a boneless caterpillar crawl of wing and petrol-soaked feather, disappearing into the gloom.

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