Tag Archives: autumn

Starling Murmurations and Natural Music at Slapton Ley

In the Guardian Country Diary for November 13th 2020, Sarah Gillespie described, in beautiful poetic language, her experience of starlings roosting in reed beds at Slapton Ley in south Devon.  By coincidence, we had visited Slapton Ley a week or so earlier (on October 25th) and had a different but complementary experience. 

A murmuration of starlings above the northern reed beds

It was a grey, overcast Sunday afternoon as we headed towards the coast, dry and not too cold but with a blustery wind.  Our plan had been to walk around the Ley and through the village of Slapton, finishing in time to watch any starling roost in the 30 minutes before sunset.  Slapton Ley is known for its starling roosts but we had no idea where we might see any activity or even whether any would occur.

The Ley is a long, thin lake separated from the sea by a narrow shingle bar, the Slapton Line, wide enough to accommodate a road, paths and stony beach.  The shingle supports many interesting plants and the lake, reed beds, marshes and woodland form an important nature reserve with many species including passage and overwintering birds.    The Ley extends roughly north-south with extensive reed beds at both ends.  Our walk took us south along the inland flank of the lake by the water’s edge and under trees with intermittent views across the water.  It was a pleasant, late autumn jaunt and it felt good to be outside and in touch with the changing season.  The path was quite muddy in places and there were, unsurprisingly, few flowers about although we did see several cheerful red campion and some fresh-looking white deadnettle, brightening the gloom like fairy lights. 

Near the start of our walk, we found the observation platform.  This is a wooden-slatted affair that extends for a short distance across the water, largely surrounded by vegetation.  It is a good place to look out across the Ley or to listen to the rustlings of waterfowl hidden among the reeds.   With the recent heavy rain, the Ley was quite full and we noticed the sound of the water lapping on the wooden slats of the platform, the sound rising and falling as the wind imposed its rhythm.  The sounds of the wind and the water felt like natural music and captured our attention.

The wooden slatted observation platform

The breakfast programme on BBC Radio 3 with Elizabeth Alker has a Saturday Sounds feature where listeners send in recordings from everyday life.  We decided to record our “natural music” (click here to listen; warning, when this video is finished, Facebook will try to load another unrelated video over which I have no control) and send it to the programme but this also needed a companion piece of music.   Perhaps it was the wooden slats of the observation platform but we both kept thinking of music played on the marimba and the simplicity of the sound suggested the composer Steve Reich. Hazel, though, found another piece that complemented the rising and falling of the natural music even better:  Orbit by Will Gregory played by the saxophonist Jess Gillam but with an ensemble that includes a marimba (click here to listen). 

To our surprise and delight, both recordings were played on the show on November 7th.

Towards the end of our walk, the sky began to clear.  Bright light filled the western sky and the low reddening sun captured the tops of roadside hedges, highlighting drifts of plump red berries.  Flocks of finches flew from nearby fields including   chaffinches, goldfinches and greenfinches.

By now it was about half an hour until sunset so we looked for a suitable vantage point to watch for roosting starlings.  We came across a small group of people by a bridge looking towards the northern end of the Ley where there are extensive reed beds, so we waited nearby.  The northern sky was clear now except for a few clouds, some white and some grey. We didn’t know why the people had gathered there so It was a bit of a gamble but our uncertainty was soon dispelled when a small group of starlings rose from the northern reed beds.  At first, they were just a mobile smudge on the pale blue background but more birds soon joined. This larger group began to move back and forth in a more defined manner sculpting mobile motifs against the sky, the pulsating mass taking on a life of its own like a shape-shifting, super organism.   The murmuration continued for a short time before this first group of birds fell back to the reeds only to be replaced by another; this process of rising and falling was then repeated several times.  The light was steadily fading but as the sun dipped downwards it cast pastel hues of rose and mauve across the northern sky. 

Starlings against a northern sky coloured rose and mauve by the setting sun

Occasionally, rather than returning to the northern reed beds, the mass of birds streamed past some trees on a nearby rise disappearing in the direction of Ireland Bay behind us.  Sometimes, though, they took the alternative route to Ireland Bay directly across where we were standing and this turned out to be an intensely visceral experience. The sight of several thousand birds flying low overhead is spectacular on its own but there was also the noise, the rushing sound of their wings beating urgently, disturbing the air as they passed low over us.  The level of sound rose rapidly as the birds approached, falling away just as quickly as they went on, like a sudden gust of wind passing through trees.    I hadn’t known what to expect but just for a few moments that afternoon we had been close to these wild creatures, closer than I can ever remember, witnessing part of their life and experiencing them in an entirely unexpected way.

Starlings streaming across a nearby rise
Starlings approaching us to fly overhead
Here is a short video of the starlings moving about and then streaming across the nearby ridge

The starlings, of course, don’t behave like this for our benefit, an underlying urge for security and safety compels them to form these groups.  This didn’t, however, stop me from marvelling at their behaviour and the liquid shapes they carved across the sky, like artists creating magical images from paint and canvas.  There was, though, another, less comfortable sensation hovering at the edge of my consciousness that I found harder to pin down.   Perhaps it was a hint of fear, perhaps at some level I was concerned that so many birds so close to me might pose a threat. Overall, though, these were moments of magic that made me glad to be alive and as the poet, Mary Oliver writes: “Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us”.

The watchers on the bridge

The small group of people who shared these events seemed to be entirely focussed on the birds and there was little or no conversation. One man even had a notebook, the true mark of a serious naturalist!  We had a brief physically-distanced conversation with them afterwards and learnt that the Slapton Ley starlings divide their roost between the northern and the south western (Ireland Bay) reed beds.  They also told us that a loud plop from nearby water had probably been an otter. 

I did not notice any “bright, intrusive screens held up between world and eye” but perhaps we were lucky that afternoon.  I did take a few photos myself but I made sure that I also watched the murmurations. For me, photographs provide a record, jogging my memory, sometimes showing aspects of events that I failed to notice in the heat of the moment. 

By now the sun had set and the starlings had settled down to roost so we walked back to the car.  A pale half circle of moon hung low above a dark blue sea.  On the beach, pebbles rushed back and forth urged on by the waves and, across the bay, the lighthouse at Start Point began to flash its protecting light.

The photo of Slapton Ley at the head of ths post and the photo of the wooden-slatted observation platform were both taken by Hazel Strange.

Autumn leaves

Leaves littered the wide pavement, skittering about in the wind like children in a playground. The man with his broom, a council employee, was trying to instil some discipline by sweeping them in to neat heaps before taking them away. But it was hard work; there were many leaves and they continued to fall even as he swept. The leaves were large, some as large as my hand, a mixture of golds, yellows, browns and greens, each leaf carrying away a fragment of our summer.

Away from the busy main streets, nobody bothers about the leaves; they are left where they drop. They fill the gutters, lie along the roadsides, clog the drains. Their autumn tints look attractive for a while, but come the rain and they turn in to an annoying, brown sludge. Cars skid on it, people slip, shoes are sullied but eventually it gets washed away. On the whole, though, it’s a small price to pay for having the pleasure of a tree-lined street in summer, the dappled light, the cool of the shadows.

Down at the river I stand on the quay and look. The tide is very low today exposing wide mud flats decorated with intricate patterns left by the receding tide. There are whole mud landscapes with shallow pools and snaking rivulets separated by mud uplands. In truth the uplands are not very “uppish” but today I notice a surprising effect. The higher contours in the mud have been picked out in shades of gold and yellow. Small leaves blown here by the wind from nearby trees seem to reach the mud uplands first and that’s where they stay. They emphasise the patterns in the mud rather like a gigantic brass rubbing. Fascinating as they are, the patterns don’t last. They dissolve with the rising tide as it distributes the leaves far and wide along the river.

The low tide is not generous to the boats moored here. They lie there unmoving, literally “stuck in the mud”, losing any semblance of elegance they previously had. By contrast, a little egret looks quite at home, prospecting for food in a shallow mud pool. Its brilliant white plumage stands out against the dark grey mud like a star in the night sky. Pottering about, it dipped its head in to the water, seemingly unaware of the nearby habitation.

While I watch the egret, two smaller birds fly fast and low over the mud, screeching in a way I interpret as fearful. Their cries reverberate off the tall concrete quays heightening the effect. I haven’t heard this cry before but the birds were too quick for me and I saw no identification cues. Later, one of these birds flies back and forth above the mud below me, shrieking again. Now I see the unmistakable electric blue back of a kingfisher in flight. When I check the Collins guide at home I learn that this screeching is normal and just the bird’s way of making its presence felt.

Totnes, October 26th 2015

Crab apples, arsenic and suburbia – the September garden

Silver birch in autumn

Early in the month, autumn was more of an idea than a fact but as September progressed, the predominantly green view from my kitchen window gained increasing yellow and brown tinges. But this was no New England “Fall”, rather a gentle and gradual transformation as the new season took hold. In particular, I watched the three silver birches become increasingly flecked with yellow, transforming their foliage in to a patchwork of bright yellows and dull greens which glowed in the light of the morning sun. By the end of the month, yellow had overtaken green and a thin carpet of autumn leaves began to form under the trees.

Sedum and bumblebee
Sedum and bumblebee

Himalayan honeysuckle and bumblebee
Himalayan honeysuckle and bumblebee

Down in the Leechwell Garden the signs of autumn were clear although a few residual flowers struggled on. These were received gladly by the bees and I saw them enjoying the thick pink mop heads of sedum and the pendulous white trumpet-flowers and deep red chandelier-bracts of Himalayan honeysuckle (Leycesteria formosa).

Overbalancing mullein

A mullein that had overbalanced under its own weight to form a surprising arch sprouted vertical shoots and flowers as if desperately trying to grab the light; an occasional bee deigned to try these late offerings.
By the end of the month, ivy growing on walls outside the Garden had flowered and the huge clumps announced themselves with their sickly-sweet smell and insect-hum. The bees were lured by this sudden profusion of pollen for a final binge of the year but many other insects also contributed to the ivy-buzz.

Away from the flowers, interest this month has been provided by fruits and seeds as the plants and trees shut down for the season.

Snowberry fruit

A few squidgy white fruits appeared on a snowberry (Symphoricarpos) and, looking at them, I was transported back nearly half a century to a primary school playground where we used these as ammunition. No-one told me at the time that the fruits were highly poisonous but had I eaten one, their strongly emetic effects would have expelled the berry before I succumbed!

Spindle tree
Spindle tree foliage and fruit


Spindle tree fruit
Fruits of the spindle tree

In a somewhat gloomy corner of the Garden, a low shrub glowed with surprising pink leaves and even pinker fruit; this is a Spindle tree (Euonymus Europaeus). There is something slightly unsettling about the fruit with their bulbous four-lobed structure and brash colour. From Cathy, on her Words and Herbs blog, I learnt that the fruit are termed Bishop’s Hats in Germany; this seems most appropriate and the bishops refer to the colour as amaranth. A euonymus gets a mention in one of my favourite poems, “A subaltern’s love song” by John Betjeman. I believe Betjeman chooses the shrub as a symbol of mid 20th century suburbia. Read it to find out!

Crab apples
Crab apples

On the Crab Apple I noticed a few fruit: almost perfect green spheres tinged subtly with red. I am not sure why there are so few fruit given the number of pollinators in the Garden and I shall be intrigued to see how these mature as by last December the residual fruit were yellow.

Cedar flowers
Cedar flowers with pollen

The blueish needles of a cedar (Atlas Cedar I think) made a statement, and the tree was also adorned with squashy pollen-laden pale brown flowers. The plentiful pollen will be wind-carried from these male flowers to the female flowers higher up the tree to form cones.


September this year has been notable for its lack of rain and mild temperatures. Although this has not been good for gardeners, it has prolonged use of the Leechwell Garden by visitors and local residents especially those with children. An unexpected use of the Garden this month was as an outdoor classroom for one of the town’s primary schools. Groups of small children in the Garden gathered around one of the benches with their teacher or ran through the water – mums and dads will have been pleased! The teachers used the Garden in this way when rebuilding work at the school was delayed by the unexpected discovery of contamination. The school occupies land formerly used as the site of the town’s Victorian gasworks and, during the rebuilding, underlying soil was found to be contaminated with arsenic, lead and benzopyrene.