I love the way the seasons slowly blur into one another, so that one moment I’m watching swallows hawking for insects over our garden, and the next, as I cycle around the lanes behind my home, loose flocks of fieldfares and redwings burst out of the hawthorn hedgerows, signalling that autumn is well and truly here.
These winter thrushes are two of the commonest birds around the Somerset Levels from November through to March. They have flown here all the way from Scandinavia and Russia (the larger fieldfares) and Iceland and Scandinavia (the smaller, neater redwings). For me, they are a welcome substitute for what we have lost: the warblers, flycatchers, swallows, martins and swifts that are with us for the spring and summer, and are now well to the south, under African skies.
The other classic winter visitor is, of course, the starling. Starlings are here all year round, singing their bizarre song in my garden throughout the spring and summer. But from late autumn onwards, our birds are joined by many more, refugees from the harsh winters farther east – most of our winter starlings travel here from Arctic Russia.
Until now, I’ve only seen small flocks of starlings on the local patch where Graeme and I visit to get our regular nature fix. But yesterday, as I walked out into my garden and gazed north towards the Mendip Hills, a huge flock – numbering several thousand birds – flew towards me. I felt like the Anglo-Saxons must have done, as the Viking hordes pushed south. Fortunately these starlings, like the redwings and fieldfares, have a more benevolent aim: they just want to feed, taking advantage of our mild winter climate, before heading back north and east to breed.
In the meantime, we can enjoy what my old friend and colleague Bill Oddie once described as “the greatest free show in Britain”: up to half a million starlings making patterns in the darkening skies as they come to roost on the Somerset Levels. Once a common sight throughout Britain (I remember them at Bristol Temple Meads station and in London’s Leicester Square) starling murmurations are now few and far between; which makes ours here in Somerset all the more special.
On winter’s evenings, from now through to February, hundreds of people gather an hour or so before dusk at the RSPB’s Ham Wall reserve. We stand and stare, like members of some weird religious sect – which I suppose is not far from the truth. We watch in silent awe as the flocks arrive, building up in a crescendo of aerobatic displays before they fall down into the reedbed below. Then we go home, happy in the knowledge that we have witnessed one of the most incredible of all natural spectacles – right here on our doorstep.