As a mere member of the ‘have bins, will point them where told to’ brigade, I hesitate to tell birding stories when amongst expert birders. Luck (and knowledgeable companions) have brought me many wonderful views of special, even rare birds, but a couple of my best memories were of - guess what, starlings!
When we lived in the Midlands, starlings visited our garden bird table, and we nicknamed them ‘the Mafia’. They were showy, greedy, brave bullies when in a mob, and would quickly clear the bird table of other birds and food. Now we live on the edge of the moors, starlings don’t visit our garden, although we see them fly over occasionally. Surveys tell us that starlings are becoming scarcer nationwide.
However, on a Christmas shopping trip to Scarborough a tedious day was transformed into a highlight by ‘the Mafia’. The multi-storey car park was so full we had to park on the roof and, as we staggered back to the car, laden with bags, the sun was beginning to set in a clear Winter sky. And there they were - starlings, in their hundreds, swooping, swirling, creating an aerial ballet above the rooftops of Scarborough. The roosting dance of the starling - magical!
On another cold, clear Winter’s day we had been birding on the South Gare, Teesside and on our way home called in to Coatham Marshes reserve, where we had heard bitterns had been seen. When we reached the hide we found it bursting at the seams with men in green jackets, and woolly hats, equipped with several thousands of pounds worth of high tech optics trained on the reed beds opposite the hide. Birders are mostly kindly folk and they tried to make room, told us what time the bitterns had been coming in each night and where to watch for them. However, the hide held such a squash of birders it meant raising binoculars to eyes had to be a synchronised move or elbows remained trapped at sides, so we went back outside, allowing us and the occupants breathing space.
And there we stood transfixed as the sun went down, reflected fiery red in the pool, and the starlings began their roosting flight. There must have been a thousand, maybe more. A pair of sparrow hawks were hunting, speeding among the huge flock of starlings, splitting them into vast, dark swirls, and dazzling hunters and watchers alike. Then the starlings rejoined in flight - safety in numbers, and what numbers!
It was breath-taking , almost joyful, for those watching below, but, of course the amazing flight was driven by instinct and fear, and as the sun disappeared, the vast flock of starlings divided and made a dash for the reeds. The sparrow hawks may have caught their supper that night, and yes, the bitterns were seen fleetingly coming to feed on the edge of the reed bed, but it is the flight of the starlings which remains forever in the memory.