A bright afternoon with billowing white
clouds sending smoky tendrils onto a base coat of sapphire blue, had slowly but
relentlessly given way to a lowering sky of rain laden grey. The light that was
so crisp two hours before was now retreating before the early gloom of dusk,
bringing the day to what felt like a premature end. With the pattering of light
rain, refreshingly cool, spotting our faces we sought sanctuary in the Hide.
Here we could sit in relative comfort and watch the spectacle that was about to
unfold. A true wildlife drama, one that would grace any Attenborough programme
watched by millions, played out here to an audience of perhaps a dozen. A
starling roost: a murmuration.
The dank murk seemed to have triggered
an early gathering and by 3.30 there were already several thousand dark shapes,
tightly massed, swirling over the reed beds. They twisted and turned as one,
each bird reacting instantaneously to the movement of its near neighbours. The
flock rippled and morphed; first a solid dark host and seconds later a graceful,
rippling pulse. Ever changing; one moment a dark round ball, the next elongated
waves; always flowing as a single entity. And then without any obvious cue the
whole mass would plummet into the reeds as smoothly and swiftly as water flowing
But the starlings were not alone. As
streams more arrowed across the broad to join their brethren, sharp eyes of
sparrowhawks awaited their chance. From the vantage point of a dead tree one of
these ace predators scrutinised the new arrivals looking for a way to get an
easy supper. It slipped from its perch, stooped low into a channel between the
reeds and was lost to view. The assault must have signalled an end for one
hapless individual, but the collective can sustain the loss of a singleton.
Such is the nature of these birds existence. One moment alive and oblivious to
imminent danger, the next a victim of death on wings.
Less capable, but nonetheless
persistent assault came in the form of lumbering marsh harriers.These large, slow raptors, more accustomed to
surprising unwary ground based prey, seemed out of their depth when chasing
swirls of fast moving objects. They lunged into the reed tops, talons extended,
but stood little chance of making contact. Their subsequent laboured pursuits,
flapping frantically on their broad long wings, bore no fruit. But surely, with
such a throng at their disposal they would eventually strike gold? Not today.
The trio chancing their luck soon gave up, finding their own roosting spot
deeper into the reeds.
And still they swarmed. Parties of a
dozen, of fifty, of two hundred hurtled without pause low over the waving reeds
to plunge without ceremony into their depths. And once there they chattered,
squeaked and chortled to one another in a fever. The sound of their discourse
providing yet another layer of wonder; what were they saying to one another?
If any proof were needed as to why
conserving such places as this is necessary, an hour spent at dusk watching the
roosting birds would dispel any doubts. It is an oasis, a sanctuary, man
managed but essentially left alone for wildlife to flourish. If 15,000
starlings couldn’t roost here then where would they go? If the sparrowhawks and
harriers couldn’t fish for supper where would they go? Where too would the ducks
and geese, the gulls, the otters, deer and voles go? And where would we go to
find peace, to refresh our soul and be lifted by such sights and sounds?
On this day we eventually decided to
leave the host in peace. A chill breeze had sprung up and it was time we
battened down the hatches and left this place. Left it to the thousands of gossiping
starlings, the circling harriers, the jet black crows. We had been fortunate to
witness a visual and aural experience to savour, all played out in a Broadland
haven a stone’s throw from a large city with its own murmuration of speeding
tin cans and scurrying pedestrians each racing home to their own roosting spot
for the night.