The new Featured Writer is Sharon Black whose wonderful poems were described by Adam Thorpe as ‘poised between the ‘storms of the heart’ and the head’s ‘light rainfall’, they have the secret, echoing force of subterranean streams.’ She would understand what I mean when I describe how, early one cold Dartmoory morning, a flock of over a hundred starlings flew over my head, uttering their familiar screechy call. I could hear the feathery, muscular beat of all their wings together. All that week they were flying like curls of smoke round Buckland Beacon and the surrounding valleys. They seemed to vanish as they turned towards the lit distance.
Starlings migrate from northern Europe to spend the winter here and the flocks can become enormous. The famous place to see the starlings going to roost at dusk in their thousands is on the Somerset levels near Glastonbury, a truly spectacular sight. They roost in reed beds, plantations and even city centres. As they gather together they form columns that move like smoke and it is incredible to think that so many birds can fly in such perfect harmony, coiling and spiralling in the air, without bumping into one another. I read somewhere that every bird is aware of up to seven of its immediate neighbours.
In flight you can recognise them because their tail is short, the head is pointed and the wings are triangular. The starling is a much maligned bird – it is in fact very beautiful for when you see it close up you can see it has dramatic, even scintillating plumage.
Late afternoon on the moors, I became aware that I was being closely monitored by bright eyes in a body the colour of dead leaves. The light was fading and just as recognition dawned a pair of snipe twanged like a feathered arrow from a bow, out of the brown bracken and into the air, calling their shock of a cry.
Snipe overwinter in boggy, swampy, fenny places on the moors. Inserting their long sensitive beaks into the wet ground they extract insects, earthworms, small crustaceans, spiders, and occasionally plant fibres, seeds and grit. They have beautiful mottled brown, patterned plumage, with extensive dark barring on the white underside. The feathers at the leading edge of the wing have bold, white tips, and the edges of the tail are white also. The long, pointed, two-toned bill, has a slight droop towards the tip. They seem to remain in their chosen wintering places for the breeding season from April-May before returning to the shorelines that are considered their true home. Why they always return to these marshes that in winter regularly freeze and become solid with layers of frost and ice is a mystery to me for when the ground turns solid they surely cannot feed.
To come upon them in such wild and inhospitable places feels to me like a blessing… the way they burst out from tussocks of grass and whirr off in curving flight like a hare … makes my heart jump, turn round inside my body … as they did late this afternoon when I called out to my companions, Hey, did you see them?
No, what? they said.
The snipe – two of them ..I answered lamely. (How could they have missed them?) It was just as if I had made up the whole thing, a figment of my own imagination.