Dusk on the winter solstice: the shortest day and longest night of the year. I was cold and alone on a track on the Somerset Levels, looking towards the dying light in the west. Moving across the sky in front of me, like the breath of the earth, were thousands of birds – starlings arriving to roost, to put away their day, and so too, on this day, the year. From the next dawn the glorious creep towards spring would be under way: more light; a future; repairs; song, nests and eggs. The year had drained to this pinching day and its paltry hours of watery sun…………
From all sides there were lines of starlings, in layers of about fifteen birds thick stretching for three miles back into the sky and coming towards the reed beds that surrounded me. They came out of the furthest reaches of the air, materialising into it from far beyond where my eyes or binoculars could reach in the murk. All flew with a lightly rippling glide, as if the net they were making of themselves was being evenly drawn into a single point in the reed bed.
Their arrival and accumulation had been eerily silent. From the early afternoon, first in the villages and then in the staging fields, there had been great noise. A collective telling and retelling of starling life rose through those hours of pre-roost talk to a complicated but loquacious rendering of all things – idiomatic adventure, mimetic brilliance and delighted conversational murmur. Once this annotation of the day was done, the birds grew quiet and lifted up and off to begin their thickening flights towards the roost.
There were thousands of mute birds around me, their wheeze and jabber left behind. Many thousands more were too far away to hear, but their calm progress towards the roost suggested they flew in silence. Closer, the only noise was of the flock’s feathers. As they wheeled and gyred en masse, the sound of their wings turning swept like brushes dashed across a snare drum or a Spanish fan being flicked open. The air was thick with starlings, inches apart and racked back into the darkening sky for a mile. Every bird was within a wing stretch of another. None touched.
A rougher magic overtook them as they arrived above the reeds. Great ductile cartwheels of birds were unleashed across the sky. Conjured balls of starlings rolled out and up, shoaling from their descending lines, thickening and pulling in on themselves – a black bloom burst from the seedbed of birds. One wheel hit another and the carousels of birds chimed and merged, like iron filings made to bend to a magnet. The flock – but flock doesn’t say anything like enough – pulsed in and out.