Murmuration

IMG_3939Norwich, mid January. At dusk over the past few weeks an avian spectacular has been witnessed taking place in the sky over St Stephen’s Street. As the daylight dwindles around the four o’clock mark a swirling murmuration of roosting starlings may often be seen in the sky above this busy city centre shopping street. There’s a pleasing degree of unpredictability to such behaviour, and some afternoons the starlings seem to be conspicuously absent, but as a rule the birds circumscribe a giddy figure eight in the sky above the old Norwich Union office block, Surrey Street bus station, the Marsh Insurance building and Queens Road.

IMG_3933For many of the shoppers and workers hurrying home on the bus this phenomena takes place virtually unnoticed. Even so, there are those who stop to look and wonder at such wild exuberance in what is to them a familiar and quotidian urban environment. While shopping is bought and buses are boarded in the street below the massed starlings dance above – a joyous ensemble piece that twists and turns like a single organism, choreographed by some sort of instinctive group consciousness. As the light fails the birds finally settle, with what seems like a collective spontaneous decision, on the roof of a disused office building where they will spend the night. Darkness falls: the spectacle is over for another day.

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True, this is not a particularly grand example of the murmuration phenomenon – perhaps just a thousand birds or so: it is hard to say – but beauty and wonder is relative and this modest display has a personal dimension in that it can even be glimpsed from the windows of my home. Such a spectacle within a stone’s throw of one’s own doorstep can only be seen as a gift.

Snettisham

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There’s a good omen as we leave Heacham before dawn: the sharp cry of a tawny owl emanating from somewhere in the woods. Fifteen minutes later, walking from Snettisham RSPB car park towards the beach at The Wash, there are already a  few skeins of geese in the sky, flying west, ready to breakIMG_3208fast on sugar beet fields.

Mostly though, you hear them before you see them – a noisy gabbling racket coming from dark rafts of life out on the water. Tens of thousands of pink-footed geese overwintering from Greenland and Iceland – west Norfolk must seem like Shangri-La after all that tundra and icy water. The geese peel off in groups at regular intervals, forming fluid arrowheads as, honking excitedly, they fly west inland.

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There is an unwritten discipline at work, and every bird seems to know its place in the squadron. Flapping inland, the geese merge loosely with other groups before they eventually disappear from view. To our human eyes, Snettisham church rising out of the mist is the only recognisable local landmark; perhaps its steeple serves as a beacon to the geese too, as they seem to know exactly where they are going. IMG_3218

The sun rises over the land, a brilliant orange fire that lights the birds as they fly over head, turning their underbelly pink, orange, red. Momentarily they almost resemble flamingos.

IMG_3244The tide is turning quickly and hidden sandbanks are revealed as the unseen moon sucks water from the land. As dawn-pink drains from the sky our attention is drawn to an untold number of hyperactive waders a little way to the south. Mostly dunlin, curlew and knot, it is the latter, another Arctic winter visitor, that are the most extraordinary as dense clouds of them rise sporadically into the sky, tightly grouped like starling murmurations. As they swiftly weave and turn, shifting the angle of their wings, the colour of this mass organism transforms dramatically from black to white to golden – the avian equivalent of a firework display. Such fleeting serendipity of form and colour: a photograph can hardly do this justice. As with the pink-footed geese, the Arctic’s seasonal loss is Norfolk’s gain.

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Slow Travel Norfolk

2029[1]

Well, it is finally out – my new book Slow Travel Norfolk.

Here is a brief extract from the book about an extraordinary rook roost that takes place at Buckenham Carrs each winter:

A  large  wooded  area  just  east  of   Buckenham  station, Buckenham Carrs is in winter home to an enormous rook and jackdaw roost mentioned in the Domesday Book. It’s thought there may be as many as 80,000 birds. The roost is the central motif of Mark Cocker’s Crow Country, which celebrates both crows and the Yare Valley where he lives. The Buckenham roost, which takes place in the winter months, roughly between late October and March, is quite a spectacle to behold, a natural phenomenon that has been taking place long before the fields were ploughed here and the church at Buckenham constructed. Ideally, you’ll want a crisp winter’s evening with a clear sky and a full moon.                                                                                                                                                    The best vantage point is to walk up the narrow road from Buckenham station until you reach a copse on the left with a small ruined brick shelter. You’ll see it all from here. The performance – if you can call it that – is a slow burn. Just after sunset, groups of rooks, and some jackdaws, fly in to gather on the large ploughed area immediately to the west; others land in the trees that surround it. Some have come quite a long way to be sociable but the crow conversation taking place sounds rather tetchy, all guttural complaining caws.                                                                                                                                       Momentum slowly builds as more and more groups of birds fly in to land in the field. As the light fades, the noise from the congregation builds louder and eerily expectant: something is clearly about to happen. Eventually, when the darkness is almost complete some sort of signal spurs the birds airborne and the sky blackens with rooks that swirl noisily east to settle in the woods of Buckenham Carrs where they will spend the night together.                                                                                                                                                It’s an astonishing, almost primal, event. One that almost laughs in the face of man’s perceived dominion over nature. No collective noun can adequately describe it: a building of rooks, a train of jackdaws. It’s less a murder of crows, more a mass execution.

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For an another take on Slow Norfolk, here is a lovely post about Going Slow on the north Norfolk coast on The World According to Dina, which generously mentions my book too.