To Know Bedrock and two birds that overwinter on Dartmoor

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.

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About Rebecca Gethin

Rebecca Gethin is a poet and a novelist. Cinnamon Press published her third collection, All the Time in the World in 2017. Another pamphlet is forthcoming with Three Drops Press. Her second novel, What the horses heard, was published by Cinnamon Press in May 2014. Her second poetry collection - A Handful of Water - was published by Cinnamon in 2013. Her first - River is the Plural of Rain - was published by Oversteps Books in 2009. Her novel Liar Dice won the Cinnamon Press Novel Writing Award in 2010 and was published in 2011. She lives on Dartmoor and writes occasional pieces about wildlife and nature. Her poems appear in a variety of poetry magazines and in several anthologies.
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7 Responses to To Know Bedrock and two birds that overwinter on Dartmoor

  1. E.E. Nobbs says:

    Yes, I agree – starlings and the way they fly together are beautiful. We have some small flocks around Charlottetown. Glad that you spied the snipes. Great to see Sharon and some of her poems featured. Thanks.
    Elly x

  2. Valerie Morton says:

    How wonderful to read about starlings – we had so many hear and I loved to watch them coming in to roost at night but sadly they have all disappeared and we never see any now. Even sparrows are in short supply. It’s terrible. I love the busy ways of starlings, how they walk , and their ‘cockiness’. And their plumage – sparkling with petrol streaks and bits of orange. I grieve at their disappearance.

    And it’s wonderful to see Sharon’s poetry – this is a collection I treasure. Thanks for this post.

    • Lovely to hear from you, Valerie. Do I not recall a starling poem of yours??? Love Becky

      • Valerie Morton says:

        I think it was my Swallows poem – amazing that you should remember. It was the first poem I had published after re-entering the writing world so it has a special place for me. I’ve often tried to capture those starlings in words but never quite managed to get there – I have vivid memories of my mother shooing them away from her bird feeder and they would all gather in the apple tree until she went into the house and then pounce again and the other birds never stood a chance. And I once fed an injured starling who lived in our garden for more than a year – it would be waiting for me on the patio each morning – poor thing was so bedraggled and wingless but it survived and my children named it ‘pakshi’ which is the HIndi name for bird. I’m glad you brought starlings back for me – I do miss them. Love Valerie – and Happy Christmas!!

  3. Really enjoyed reading this.

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