Whistling in the Dark

Under a dun November sky I park up beneath some trees and walk the hundred or so yards to the lock that separates the Cam from the lower waters of Reach and Burwell Lodes. The rain has stopped but the day is overwhelmingly glum. It is hard to imagine that the riches I seek will be offered up by something so lacking in promise, but it is this leaden firmament that I hope will yield many thousands of starlings; once again, I am on the hunt for a murmuration.

The weight of life’s disappointments, frustrations and worries, perhaps trivial in the scale of things but real enough to me, begins to ease almost from the off. Not a spring in my step exactly, but certainly a sense that the load is lifting as I walk. I am descending into an open landscape, equal parts land and sky, a drab vista that presents itself without drama; a palette of subdued colour, barely any wind and a still, calm air. And out there, somewhere in the distance and a few miles to the south-east, is Tubney Fen where, rumour has it, I will find my birds. Within ten minutes of setting out I think I can see them – a thumbprint smudge shifts and moves over the dull sky, fluid, it shimmers in and out of focus; at first grey, the birds turn as one and the shape is suddenly a sharp black. Another change of direction and they are almost invisible.

My excitement is tempered by the certain knowledge that I am too late. By the time I reach the roost the display will surely be over, but I press on regardless. It is a quiet walk; the lode to my left is dark and serene – it looks ever so cold. The starlings have gone now, and only the occasional rustle in the reeds breaks the silence. Half an hour later, under the gaze of a watchful crow, I approach the reedbeds of the Fen where they are supposed to be roosting, and find myself puzzled by hearing what appears to be running water. This is odd – water out here doesn’t gush or flow; it seeps and oozes, leaches and permeates. Sometimes maybe even a trickle, but not this pouring sound that I can hear.

I climb up onto the bank and look out over the water – at the base of the reeds is a heavy black liquid mass, as if crude oil has leaked into the landscape; all at once, in a rush, I understand what is in front of me. What I am seeing is the starlings, and the terrific noise, like a thousand excited 7 year-olds all trying to explain something at the same time, is the sound of their chatter. It is an astonishing and wonderful thing. I sit down and listen until the light has almost completely gone – it is time I made my way back to the car.

Walking in the dark is lovely – the usual visual signals are largely redundant and it becomes all about the sounds. Your hearing becomes acute; you can hear yourself breathe and the crunch of every step seems amplified. But I am far from alone. I walk past a small copse where the crows are settling down for the night, gently rasping to each other. A little further on and I find myself between a pair of tawny owls, quite invisible to me but deep in conversation. They are joined by a lone little owl, its eerie whistles adding a spooky frisson to the cool evening air.

Then something extraordinary happens. The cloud must have lifted because, all of a sudden, sitting huge and fat on the northern horizon is the most enormous orange full moon. It’s breathtaking. I stop and watch as it begins its slow climb into the night, the sky now clear and the deepest darkest blue. Far off in the west a sprinkle of coloured lights add a festive air; presumably the Five Miles From Anywhere pub. To their right, where I imagine the car to be, a single green light flickers and fades before coming back more steadily; I turn and walk towards it.

The next day I return, this time approaching the site by driving across country down one of those impossibly bumpy Fen droves of the kind that make you hold on to your hat and pray for the suspension. It’s a horrible afternoon – squally wind and spitting rain. Do starlings murmur in such inclement conditions? The almost complete absence of birds would suggest that they don’t. I walk around for half an hour or so, my hopes fading when I spot a small group, perhaps twenty strong, wheeling round, swooping over my head. It’s small beer, and better than nothing – but as I watch the numbers begin to grow. There are birds flying in from all directions and soon I am losing count. The sky is now full of them, a thousand, two thousand, ten, fifty – it is bewildering and I find myself gasping, ooh’ing and aah’ing as if at a firework display. This is the real deal too – shapes form and dissolve in a whirl of liquid movement, the performance practiced and honed over millions of years.

I lie back on the wet grass as the birds pass over me, scarcely ten feet above – so close I can feel the electric crackle of their movement in the air. It occurs to me that they are flying in almost total silence – so many creatures and yet all I can hear is the sigh of their wings. This is the murmur, and it’s magical. I am briefly overcome with emotion and, with the multitude sweeping back and forwards around my head, it is the sound of my laughter that joins in the collective whisper of what must be all the starlings in the world.

7 thoughts on “Whistling in the Dark

  1. Hi John,

    Left me feeling very envious! I have on a couple of occasions, seen skeins of cranes – once particularly in Hungary – but never a murmuration of starlings. In fact it had never occurred to me to think about where the name originated.

    Lovely piece of writing! As always!

    Happy New Year! Whatever that means in these covid troubles days.

    Love to you & all the family,

    Xx Robyn.

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