Nature Notes

An Apparition: Starlings & the Peregrine.

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On a bright afternoon, we go birding in the Land Rover, not anticipating much. The last embers of redwing and fieldfare flocks glow – and babble like a stream through the trees. Near the dewpond, it becomes apparent there is a huge flock of birds, just over the ridge of the hill.

We pull up and get out. Below, and at eye level, is the biggest flock of starlings either of us have seen on these hills. They have formed a great feeding flock before dispersing and migrating north. Thousands of birds ripple in a black, lacy wave above the escarpment, 1,00ft up. They rise and fall as if someone were lifting and settling a bedsheet.

Lit by the evening sun, the view below is breathtaking. We are higher than the kites chasing and tumbling in pair bonding displays. The starlings feed on worms and invertebrates, among the sheep dung. They are spotted with petrol iridescence; their plumage dotted with wet scales from a rainbow. The feeding flock twitters and warbles with a sonic mix of radio, internet chatter and static. When they lift and come over us like a great net, with a perfectly positioned and choreographed flap-and glide of thousands, it is with the sound of the sea.

Something changes.

The flock drifts eastwards, but a spectral ball breaks away, rises in front of us and hovers: a dense orb of birds. A black eye that obscures part of the valley below like a migraine absence on the retina, that shifts unnervingly like a mote in the eye. In this most atmospheric of places, it is a powerful image; eerie, disconcerting and utterly thrilling.

The flock feints, stretches into an ellipse, flattens and elongates like a bouncing ball, hissing as it shape-shifts. Yet this unearthly swarm is doing something very real: it is performing the collective trick of safety in numbers. It is surviving.

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We search for the cause and find it: flung high above the starlings like a deadly Japanese throwing star is a peregrine falcon. It reaches the heights, then plummets in a stoop. The flock moves, a beetle-black fluctuation of jet and stars and silver, a single, intelligent organism of thousands of individuals.

The falcon tries again. Again, the sound of the sea pulling back from the shore: the globe of moving static and white noise flinches sideways.

The falcon powers upwards once more, drops and plunges into the shoal black glitter of birds and the effect is instant. Like a needle piercing a cell, a pin popping a balloon full of feathers, the form explodes and the birds fall to the ground.

Out of sight over the ridge, the peregrine has killed one of their number. For the survivors, the panic is over. There is no grieving. They cover the hill like a dropped veil, resume their chatter and feed.

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