Noisy flocks of starlings descend on the tall trees by the river. They crowd on to the branches and chatter in a loud atonal chorus. More join them and the cacophony builds. Then they begin to soar into the air, 40 or more at a time, forming clouds of black dots – swerving in fluid, changing shapes, first one way, then back, moving across the brooks until they rise above a patch of reedbed and drop down into it.
As the birds adjust their flickering wings to land, the sunlight leaks through their turning feathers, making the wings shimmer briefly, like flashing lights, before they disappear. I watch several small groups perform the same ritual as they settle down for the night. Only occasional bursts of chattering from deep within the vegetation – growing louder, then fading – give away their presence.
A bird of prey spears low across the dark water and up over the reeds. The starlings react instantly, exploding in deafening alarm calls. Some fly up in defensive swarms, while the others scatter across the marsh or stay hidden.
The sparrowhawk, a large female, chases across the reedbed, then turns and dives out of sight. It must be the same bird that hunts here most evenings, having learned to make the most of the wintering roosts.
She emerges again, this time flapping slowly, purposefully, carrying a limp starling in one dangling foot. She glides into the blackness between the nearby trees.