In November and early December starlings appear in large flocks over Long Island. For no apparent reason they can fill the sky when least expected, black specks in flight. They swarm into trees or along power lines. If you get close you can hear their lilting melody, before they suddenly fly. I don't know why they flock or sing but I love the mystery of their great numbers in synchronized flight and their soft melodic sound as they perch in trees.
It's rare to see a lone starling in autumn, however, on a cool and drizzly morning, one is perched on a tree branch. I wouldn't have noticed it but for two jays, their blues and whites, striking in the drab landscape, that were flying in and out of the same tree. The starling's appearance is somewhere between dark brown and black with dull white striations. Starlings' overall appearance can look a bit soiled, which is why I affectionately call them the "dirty birds."
The lone starling has no hint of light brown or iridescence, which it might have on a sunny day, to offset its drabness. What this bird lacks in color is made up for with a stolid steadfastness. It perches with its long bill resolutely held straight and pointed into the distance, impervious to robins that fly almost gaily to and from the tree's branches. Some of those branches have wet, ridged nuts, a contrast to the supple-bodied bird, which just then quivers. Is it doing so because of the cold and wet? Abruptly it flies, looking all business, leaving the limb slightly shaking. Are you going to join a flock fella? I hope so; it's getting to be that time of year.
One crisp autumn day two years ago, long lines of clouds had widened into soft edged masses resembling crashing surf and delicate wispy ones the very picture of spray. Out of that work in progress, the flock of starlings came high above, furiously flapping their wings, which flashed dull silver in flight. About 75 of them quickly crossed the sky, like old-fashioned fighter planes on a mission. I just enjoyed unexpectedly seeing them.
Later they did something that I hadn't seen before; call it the forward and reverse black ink trick. This time over 200 starlings came low over a rooftop, like a funnel of black ink and started to go onto a small tree on a lawn. To fit there they would have to take up every available inch of space on the tree. The first wave spilled onto the tree but the rest like a film suddenly run backwards, quickly went into reverse, and came over the rooftop again. Still flying low they spread out in the sky flying toward where I stood. Wings beating furiously they spread out over the expanse of blue sky passing overhead. I could see at least one flying not in a straight line, as it might seem from a distance, but weaving gracefully. They flew straight into the sun, breaking into smaller groups. Again they started to funnel onto a tree but again reversed. They repeated this until flying out of sight. Were they practicing quick take-off maneuvers? Only they knew.
Soon they came onto a neighbor's roof filling it like a scene out of Alfred Hitchcock's film The Birds. Not long after, twilight set in; bringing puffs of charcoal gray clouds that partially hid the remainder of a pink sky as if drawn by an artist's unseen hand.
That starlings unexpectedly appear in the fall in a swarming mass only adds to their mystery. That is also heightened by fall's peak foliage, which creates theater for these special moments. While driving on the LIE two months ago, I saw a mass of black specks in the sky ahead. They traversed the road in a wavy flight and abruptly funneled into a tree as if by an invisible magnet. How do they do it? On Halloween, in nearly the same spot, as I'm getting off the Expressway, at least a dozen are just lifting off the grass while many, many more are still on the ground. A few of the airborne birds aren't much higher than the car. Their wings, beating rapidly, oddly look gray. I've seen this before and wonder why motion creates this color. The thought lasts about a minute. Going down a long winding road that is heavily canopied with near peak foliage, I feel like I've entered a womb-like atmosphere and put aside my curiosity to feel the moment.
One October afternoon after a rain, half the sky is gun metal gray; the other part is blue sky with moving billowing clouds. Leaves matted to asphalt, line roads. Partial sun highlights the near peak foliage. The day couldn't be more picturesque. At a light I notice that on an overhead wire there are a number of starlings and they start to spill off one by one, with the same precision that they show in flight, onto the grass below and peck away. They will be massing to migrate later in November. At the end of December my wife and I will be going south to Florida for winter. I wonder if we're going to see them there this winter in large numbers perching on the same wire by the same wooden pole where they so often massed last winter. I plan on watching and sending back observations about Florida's other abundant winter migrant and native birds. In the meantime I hope that you have a mild winter here and that Santa is good to you all.