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West Country New Year

Starlings over the Torridge
Starlings over the Torridge

Spending New Year in North Cornwall with my in-laws after a particularly chaotic Christmas, I had some very welcome opportunities to get out and about amongst the wildlife. After seven years of visiting the West Country, I haven’t really managed to make any real inroads into the local countryside, and as much as I have spent many hours looking for choughs (unsuccessfully), much of the county is an enigma.

I’d like to be able to go bird watching or sea fishing when I’m down, but don’t really know where to begin (any advice gratefully received), so in the spirit of New Year’s resolutions, I swore to make more of an effort in 2015. As it was, Maer Lake in Bude provided a fine opportunity to spend time with wigeon and teal, and I enjoyed watching a group of several hundred golden plover flying in panicked retreat from the sudden appearance of a cock peregrine on New Year’s Day.

In an excellent bookshop on Allhalland Street in Bideford (where I got my hands on some fine old editions of Peter Scott and Seton Gordon), I was advised by the proprietor to head down to the Bideford bridge to watch the starlings going to roost over the Torridge. A pair of peregrines has been working the estuary during the course of the winter, and I was told that they often materialised over the town during the last few moments of daylight in order to cash in on the monstrous surfeit of noisy, chaotic birdlife as it went to roost on the ledges of the old bridge.

Sure enough, dusk found me watching a couple of hundred starlings turning over the water in a modest display. But as darkness gathered, more and more birds came in over the town in waves until there were several thousand little darts all turning together in the cold wind. It seemed odd that a buzzard should be passing over the water below them, and I watched as it flew up to land on the railings of an old building overlooking the river. The starlings continued to turn and twist with such enthusiasm that the sullen shape was soon forgotten, and parties of little birds broke off from the display to pack the arches with bustling noise and activity.

It was a bizarre experience to see such wildlife in the midst of the town, and I was surprised to see how uninterested the general public was in this frenetic murmuration. Passers-by only stopped to see what I was looking at, and as soon as they realised that it was “just birds”, they carried on again. Many didn’t even look up as the massed body of starlings turned over their heads and swarmed in to roost.

And out of nowhere, the buzzard was in amongst them. He dropped off the building like a shadow  and coasted at low level into the nooks where the roosting starlings had gathered in greatest numbers. Many saw him as he approached and poured like liquid out from the concrete corners, but as he came close it was simple work for him to grab a bird out of the air and then settle on a ledge to enjoy his dinner.

The starlings were appalled and refused to return to that corner. Those that hadn’t seen the incident carried on as normal, flying in to roost and then flaring back in terror to find the monster from their nightmares dismembering a colleague in their bedroom. At length, the buzzard dropped out from under the arches and flew out of sight across the river. It was another example of how these birds can be so versatile and adapt their hunting techniques to suit specific opportunities. Having written about buzzards and adders in previous years and a buzzard hunting like an owl a few months ago, it again seemed like there was much more to these “worm eating carrion feeders” than meets the eye.

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