Starlings: harmony, wholeness, a one-flock rhythm

The Somerset Levels are moody even on ordinary days. As dull light flattens the wetland’s subtle variations, its features stand out all the more distinct: Glastonbury Tor looming beyond the marshes, reeds, lone trees and numberless birds of varied kinds. Among them, Peregrines, Fowl, Marsh Harriers, Snipe and Redshanks. The Levels are famed for the flocks that rest during colder months – including the millions of starlings that come to roost.

Their legendary murmurations are waves of movement. As thousands of starlings settle for the night or take off in the morning, a flock can resemble one giant pulsing bird. Thousands of enthusiasts gather over the course of January and February to witness this annual magic.

Waiting and uncertainty are part of the mix. The choice of resting territory for starlings is hard to predict. They can return day after day to the same spot, then, as reeds flatten, they disappear, moving on to neighbouring reserves. Often, a distant flock arcs overhead, raising the hopes of all gathered to watch – only to continue on to somewhere else. Even choosing where to wait along the narrow walkways can be tricky. A reserve can be large enough for the birds to have a choice of many landing spots covering a mile-long stretch. Sometimes, the flocks are restless and the murmurations more scattered. To get a birds-eye view of these thick black waves depends on all these factors coming together. That’s a lot of luck.

It was a cold afternoon. I stood there with dozens of others. Waiting has benefits. A shimmering mosaic of water and land has a wealth of natural marvels to be enjoyed. The marshes, appearing as fairyland, seem outside of time, the distant Tor a throne of guardianship. Wispy clouds on a horizon of sky made it seem vaster, and the land flatter. The reeds swayed all around, whispering in the chilling wind. People were chattering over steaming flasks, others clapping their hands into life, adjusting binoculars or camera lenses.

Generosity is part of bird-watching culture. The thrill and wonder, and detailed knowledge accrued from patient study, is intensified from being shared. Nudging elbows made me notice fowl and life in the water I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. My questions were answered – or at least pondered. Binoculars were handed to me for better views.

In an instant everything switched. The crowd silenced. The moody skies hummed with the electric pulse and sound of an approaching swarm. The charge felt similar to the moments before lightening strikes. Even the ground seemed to throb with vibration. Clouds of starlings flew in from all directions, one at a time, dispersing again, before regrouping to roost at distant points.

There was one murmuration – not close but exciting nonetheless. A black bulge within the more scattered whole plunged and soared in one swift pulse. Such seamless cohesion requires many thousands to throng, dense as a wing beat. There is a palpable harmony, a wholeness, a one-flock rhythm – so effortless it took my breath away.

Only when the whole flock feels the rightness of a spot will they all settle. Anything out of balance with such exacting precision will displace it ‘til that optimum equation of time and place lines up.

As the starlings settled, the reeds and rushes swayed in continuous movement. Even the skies were inseparable from their flight and landing. The grasses shimmered everywhere I looked as many thousands of starlings jostled for space.

I’m sure this wasn’t a definitive murmuration viewing – but this glimmer was enough for me. I felt charged and alive – filled with wonder for an example of everyday instinct that is no less extraordinary. Even my excited stomach recognised the specialness of Nature’s business.

“Got what you wanted?” One grinning neighbour asked me, holding two sets of binoculars. I could barely speak – and smiled as if to say, “you saw that too?”

There’s something in the gamble of showing up to witness. The uncertainty makes the moment of change all the more thrilling.

Walking back to the car with Rex straining at the lead, the sound of roosting starlings got louder. I don’t think that was because of raised volume. My body was uplifted, attuned to their music…

I returned to the city inspired. The starlings will flock to the Levels until the end of next month. Daybreak offers a very different quality – a liminal time as the world sleeps. Given the number of mornings in February before the Starlings head on to other European havens, there are many more opportunities to show up and marvel.