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 avine 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.