I can do without surprises that make me jump out of my skin. Movie scenes where the baddie suddenly appears from nowhere or the shock of spotting a mouse quickly burrowing into the compost can easily send my heart into a brief race. Happening upon a snake basking in the sun on a rock is guaranteed to provide a jolt, but doesn’t leave me in a terrible state. Still, I’m content to give this one a miss.
I can also do without the surprise of litter and poo bags along our track, or, as happened more recently, spotting a bathtub next to the road in the middle of the moors. Some surprises startle, others irritate.
But, when I encounter some astonishing fact or make a new discovery, even in the course of a seemingly routine day, that’s the surprise party to which I want to be invited. Let me dive into that gap between assumptions and something unexpected! No more same old same old, I’m talking about the “rules of the world” not following, well, the established rules of the world. Astonish me with the unexpected.
These moments occur in the way the dawn light plays differently every day on the hills, or on a clear night, observing the twinkling sparkle of countless stars that appear close enough to touch. On Dartmoor, how a clear and warm day can suddenly disappear when a cold fog moves in, turning summer-like weather back to winter in under sixty minutes, never ceases to impress.
Unsurprisingly, with the warm weather of the past few weeks we have been busy outside. In three days, we managed to repair the potholes on the track that developed from the relentless winter rains. Three days may seem a lot, but we felt a sense of pride as last year this same maintenance work took us nearly ten days. We also have the vegetable beds ready for spring and summer plantings. Winter plants past their prime, along with newly showing weeds, have been cleared and fresh compost applied. After two years, these tasks are establishing themselves as routine and making their shift into a sort of outdoor meditation from their original appearance on our Four-Page-Excel-Spreadsheet-To-Do-List for Crockern.
One recent day while I was outside shovelling, raking, digging, or hauling something I had just shovelled, raked or dug, I heard a sudden “sssshhhhwwwwapp, sssshhhhwwwapp, sssshhhhwwwapp” sound overhead. I looked up and there was a dense black cloud comprised of hundreds and hundreds of starlings moving acrobatically across the sky. I stopped and watched the duration of their spectacular aerial display. These birds are fast, turning on a dime; wheeling and diving across the sky, to shape shift their formation as if Busby Berkeley choreographed the whole scene.
Starlings are short and stocky with a fat little triangular shape. They aren’t exactly beauties. Growing up in the States, I was taught to revile these little birds for their noise, their volume of group poop and the indictment (now known as false) as a major reason for the decline of the Eastern Bluebird.
That said, they may appear black, but up close, they shine an iridescent green and purple. They are highly social birds, which may be code for noisy and chatty. When in a large flock (or murmuration to give them the proper name), their sound is amplified through their sheer gregarious numbers. Think teenagers at a party. No, think teenagers imitating everyone and anyone at this party. Starlings mimic other birds and have nearly twenty distinct impersonations, including some human-made sounds like cars. They appear to exist solely for self-amusement.
In the late 1590s Shakespeare made note of the starling’s ability to mimic. In Henry IV, Part 1 Hotspur contemplates driving King Henry around the bend because he refuses to aid the release of Mortimer, Hotspur’s brother-in-law. The cunning plan is to have a Starling repeat the name Mortimer. “Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer,’” murmured Hotspur.
And it is for this reason – Shakespeare, not Mortimer – that the Starling made its appearance in the States. In the late 19th century, the American Acclimatization Society, an organization dedicated to introducing European flora and fauna into North America for cultural and economic reasons, sought to introduce to the US every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s scripts, all 600-plus avian species. To achieve their goal, the Acclimatization Society released some hundred Starlings in New York City’s Central Park in 1890 and 1891. By 1950, Starlings were found across the continent, just like the first settlers to North America, who also exercised their belief in Manifest Destiny.
This winter, our bird feeders have had fewer visitors with only Chaffinches, Tits and Jackdaws. Last winter, we had several species and remain curious as to why our bird numbers and diversity are lower. Could it be the warmer winter? The extensive flooding in The Somerset Levels? Some other bird reason we will never know? Happily, the other day we spotted a pair of Pied Wagtails on the roof and a pair of Greenfinches at the feeders. We’ve once again heard the Green Woodpecker in the valley and spotted Nuthatches in the Ash tree.
Two days after catching the Starling air show, I opened the door to a deafening sound. Whistle. Whirr. Pzzt. Click. Repeat. And, repeat again. Again and again. Raise the volume to eleven and repeat some more. When hearing and seeing Starlings in such large numbers, it is hard to imagine breeding populations in Europe have been in decline since the mid-1960s, moving them from being among the most common of garden birds to being listed on the Red List with the RSPB. I walked outside slowly and there were hundreds of Starlings partying in the trees. Could it be that this murmuration will roost near Crockern?
Heading down to let the chickens out, I was surprised to see three molehills. I spread the dirt evenly with my boot, let the chickens out for the day, and gave thought to the Starlings who were making their aerial way to feed on insects. The chickens strutted and clucked past, and I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. A small volcano of dirt was erupting from the newly flattened molehill! Who knew that moles would continue to dig tunnels once hearing noise or sensing vibration above them? But dig they do, and the dirt mound grew before my – surprised I might add – eyes.
Back toward the house, I encountered another surprise. The Starlings were not just taking flight; they were on the lam, making their escape, laughing with all their murmuration might. Our previously black car, parked under the trees, had been transformed into something resembling a Dalmatian by a flock of Starlings. Damn!