Nature Notes

Starlings as Lighthouses.

The chimney pot starling is making a fool of me. I keep hearing swallow song – that twittering-buzz that sounds like a whole flock in one creature. I dash out several times, but see nothing. When the song comes from the hedge by the open door of my hut, I realise. A virtuoso starling, a perfect mimic, had ‘recorded’ and was playing back the song on a loop. A reel that incorporated blackbird song, thrush and greenfinch among the reel-to-reel, static, ‘dial-up’ clicks and whirrs of starling ‘song’. I’ve listened to this bird (or generations of him) since my eldest daughter was born and we moved here. She was just seven days old.

I’ve written down what the starling has copied, committed to memory and played back, every spring since. It’s a record of what we’ve gained and lost. This year, Canada goose and heron have been added, but Lapwing has been reduced down to just two peewit notes, the memory of it fading. The birds themselves gone from the village finally about six years ago.

We take the train to Falmouth for a couple of days, on a university recce for my daughter, now nearly 18. It’s exciting to travel so far west and see the landscape unfold from the carriage windows, as Eric Ravilious did, when he painted its downland and chalk horses.

Pewsey and Westbury slide by and the cream chalk fields give way to flat Somerset Levels and the beetroot-red fields of Devon sandstone.  We pass a field of pink sheep, folded onto a rosy field of root veg, that have taken up the colour. The fields, tractors and trains we change onto get smaller.

The woods have a greening fuzz and are filled with primroses. There are combes, streams and mudflats and cows coming in for milking. There are embankment rabbits, lone people in fields, galloping horses and rows of coloured houses like geological strata. We sail along the sea’s edge as if we were a ship. The names become a poem, metered by the train’s rhythm: Saltash, Liskeard, Lostwithiel and Par. We change at Truro for Perranwell, Penryn, Penmere.

The town is full of life and community; the university, wonderful, hidden in a Riviera garden of ferns. Every garden, wall and verge is a riot of wildflowers: I botanize out loud. ‘Ivy-leaved toadflax!’ ‘Navelwort!’ Oh look! ‘Three-cornered leek!’ The girls don’t bat an eyelid. 

Ivy-leaved toadflax
Navelwort
Three-cornered leek

We find the beach and though it is chilly, the girls step in. I am distracted by the seawrack flotsom on the tideline. Small birds are fossicking under the seaweed for sandhoppers. I think of turnstones, but quickly realise they are not: they are very confiding and in their busyness, allow me very close: I am astonished and delighted to find they are pied wagtails. Only last week I had written about their more colourful lemon-bellied cousins, the grey (or water) wagtail in The Guardian. I smile and feel a tug at my heart, some kind of butterfly-fluttering in my stomach: these are the ‘gypsy birds,’ pied as they are, and, as my Romany Grandad would say, the sign of a good stopping place, a home.

I watch my eldest daughter taking in the view that will become her first home away from home. I keep the sighting to myself a moment – and then tell her. We bend for some stones to throw into the sea and say together ‘Oke Romano chiriklo, dikasa e Kalen!’ (See a gypsy bird, soon see a gypsy).

We travel home, not looking back, because we have seen The Future. Out in the gently darkening fields, there are lights like lighthouses, blinking on dry land. Blue shadowed church towers, farm barns.

The following morning, chimney pot starling is reporting in his sequinned gown of oiled, preened feathers. And at last, the swallow’s song comes from one overflying – as well as his throat.  

2 thoughts on “Nature Notes

  1. Hi Nicola,

    An incredible piece, full of vivid imagery and emotion, capturing place (s) and you and your daughter’s experiences so beautifully. I used to live in Cornwall and remember those place names so well.
    So glad you finally saw a swallow. I am still desperately looking for more than the two I’ve seen in my village since April. They arrived very late in many places I believe. We usually get a reasonable number, plus house martins, but all I have seen so far is swifts (plenty) plus those two swallows. Good luck, I hope you see more. These are difficult times for wildlife and uncomfortable to witness and feel these absences ourselves.

    Thank you for the gorgeous writing posts. They are uplifting even when the ‘news’ isn’t.

    Best wishes,

    Genny Sandalls

    • Ah, thank you so much Genny! Such a beautiful part of the world – a few swallows here, but really, not many. Swifts have arrived in our local town of Hungerford, but again, it seems fewer each year. We must keep the faith and keep doing whatever we can! Best wishes, N x

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