Tag Archives: steve reich

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.

A Dartmoor Cuckoo Chorus – Lockdown Nature Walks 6

With the easing of the Lockdown rules in the UK, we have been venturing further afield for our exercise walks.  So, a few days ago we drove up to Two Bridges, high on Dartmoor, for a circular walk around the valley of the west Dart river via Wistman’s Wood, a rare example of ancient high-altitude oak wood.  Our walk was graced by the sounds of many cuckoos.

We began by heading northwards away from the Two Bridges car park on an uneven track running roughly parallel to the west Dart river.  With clear skies, strong sun and barely any breeze, it was much hotter than we expected for Dartmoor and sultry is probably the best word to describe the weather.  Soon after we set off, however, as we walked up the dry stony path to Crockern Tor Farm, we heard the unmistakable call “cuckoo cuckoo”.    A few sheep and one or two walkers were our only company and the song of the cuckoo instantly grabbed our attention as it echoed round the valley.  Further on, a jumble of rocks, Crockern Tor, loomed on our right and then another cuckoo called.  Eventually, we reached the top of a ridge and Wistman’s Wood came into view ahead, a green-leaved mass standing out above the summer-dry landscape on the eastern flank of the valley while the west Dart river lay in the valley bottom below.  The dry grass around us was punctuated by neat yellow tormentil flowers and unruly clumps of heath bedstraw covered with tiny white flowers and, as we walked, small orange butterflies (Small Heath, Coenonympha pamphilus) flickered upwards, dancing around briefly before heading off.  Another cuckoo called and I began to understand how the simple but beautiful music of their song had inspired so many composers.

Wistman’s Wood (taken 19th May 2018)

 

We made our way along the edge of Wistman’s Wood looking in on the seductive jumble of moss- and lichen-covered twisted branches and smooth rocks.  By now we had been walking for about an hour and were finding the temperature difficult so we decided to take a lunch break seated on smooth lumps of granite beneath one of the old oaks.  A little cloud had helpfully bubbled up keeping the sun at bay.  The river valley lay below us and the dense oaks of Wistman’s Wood and a few smaller clumps of trees stood out on the hillside.   Sheep bleated fitfully and small birds flitted about.  Then the cuckoos started to sing as if to provide us with lunchtime entertainment.  Several birds called from different directions, some nearer, some further away and at least two cuckoos moved between the trees in the valley.  We recognised them in flight from their pointed wings and long tail.  Most of the song was “cuckoo cuckoo”, the call of the male bird and sometimes this was extended to “cuckcuckoo”, not far off the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth.  We also heard the burbling, gurgling sound which the female cuckoo makes when she is excited.

Cuculus canorus vogelartinfo chris romeiks CHR0791 cropped.jpg
A cuckoo (from Wikipedia)

 

Here is a short video of a male cuckoo calling:

The cuckoos had put on a real show for us that day but whenever I hear their call, whether it be one cuckoo or several, the sound has a profound effect on me.  In my teens, living in small town Hampshire, near woodland, cuckoo calls were a standard fixture of spring, something I came to expect each year.  With the decline of the bird, and having lived in large towns for many years I lost that expectation.  Now when we come to Dartmoor and I hear cuckoos again, their song touches some deeply held memory for me.

After lunch, we headed down across open moorland to cross the west Dart river.  Cotton grass with its fluffy, white cotton wool heads grew here, showing that the land is normally very boggy.  I also saw a few delicate blue and white heath milkwort flowers, far fewer today than in previous years, perhaps a reflection of the dry weather.  We crossed the river and scrambled up to the Devonport Leat, a narrow watercourse constructed in the 18th century to supply water from the Dart river to the growing community of Plymouth Dock 27 miles away.  Nowadays it empties into the Burrator Reservoir which provides water for Plymouth itself.  We followed the leatside path along the western side of the valley across the river from Wistman’s Wood to return to Two Bridges [The picture at the head of this post and the note at the end explain the location of the leatside path].  This should, by definition, be mostly easy walking but degradation of the path stones makes it less so.  Marsh violet with its pale mauve flowers, pink lousewort and good amounts of bilberry flourish in the damp environment by the leat and a few small fish dart back and forth.

About half way along the leatside path, two male cuckoos began to sing from the trees across the river in Wistman’s Wood.  At first, their calls came at different times from different locations.  One bird sang “cuckoo” and a short time later the other bird did likewise as if providing an answer.  This call and answer pattern was then repeated.  But the two birds were actually “cuckooing” at different frequencies so that gradually their calls moved together, then began to overlap and for a short time they sang at the same time before one bird stopped.   For a brief moment, as we listened, time stood still.

The song of the two cuckoos initially made me think of a musical round where different groups of people sing the same melody but start at different times.  “Sumer is icumen in”, also known as the Cuckoo Song, is a good example of a round.  A better analogy for the calls of the two cuckoos, however, comes from the phase music of Steve Reich. In his composition, Piano Phase, two pianos play the same tune but at slightly different tempi, giving rise to novel musical effects, rather like the two singing cuckoos.

When we decided to walk on Dartmoor that day, I had expected to hear one or two cuckoos but nothing like the extraordinary cuckoo chorus that graced our walk.

We walked on Dartmoor on May 27th 2020, our route is described here

The picture at the top of this post looks south down the valley of the west Dart.  Wistman’s Wood can be seen on the left and the line on the western hillside is the Devonport Leat.