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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.