Written by Michael Givant Friday, 11 November 2011 00:00
On a mid-November morning long puddles line a curb on an uphill street in Woodbury. They are filled with red and yellow leaves looking like summer garlands. Woodbury Road is choked with leaves that my sneakers push out of the way with a whooshing sound. It’s as if a tickertape parade has gone by and autumn’s pageant is winding down.
High on one of the tall, bare trees that line the street is the unmistakable form of a hawk. As I get closer the raptor turns in my direction. It’s a red-tailed hawk and judging by the large size, probably a female. I’d like a closer look but have, as usual, forgotten to bring binoculars despite reminding myself to do so when I go for a walk.
On the last day of November at the corner of Jericho Turnpike and Southwoods Road, perched on electric lines and framed against a gray sky, are dozens of starlings. Why do they favor those wires? I’m a lousy record keeper but my memory tells me that the end of November and beginning of December is when starlings start to mass in large flocks. Later, on Shelter Rock Road, there’s a half bare tree. One by one its remaining orange and wine colored leaves are blown off by a breeze, lifted up then sent twirling to the ground. It’s as if Mother Nature wants us to count them before autumn’s color is over and the starlings come.
The next day the spectacle and mystery of the starlings starts in the rain. Looking like pieces of soot, they come flying down a hill then turn into a roiling dark mass and pass by. An hour later the starlings come off a tree near our house looking bigger as they get closer. In flight it appears that the birds are connected to some electro-magnetic field that only they can feel. Some fly to one tree and others to a different tree, perch for seconds then leave. It seems as if they are frolicking. After a while most are on one bare tree. Within seconds they rise up in a slight outward curve on either side of the tree, meeting over the top where they make a pattern of black dots, which form the outline of an umbrella opening in the rain. The rest of the day is wet with the birds coming in fewer numbers. Enjoy them now, I tell myself, because they likely won’t be here tomorrow.
However a week later a mass of starlings has descended on a lawn across the street, exuding a faint purple hue. In seconds they all rise up in the pale winter light. As sunlight dances on their bodies they turn, leaving momentary black shadows on a red brick roof top and fly to a bare tree. Within seconds they are back on the lawn but again rise up. They repeat this yet another time with the morning sun’s theatrical spotlight on them. Am I watching feeding birds or avian choreography?
A half-hour later there are fleeting shadows on our living room window. Opening the blinds I see some starlings perched on our oak tree. There’s also a mass of them in an adjacent tree looking like the ominous playground scene from Hitchcock’s The Birds where a great number of crows have massed. As hard light bounces off the starlings, their sides look fuzzy. Starlings have a “dirty” white and black speckled breast with tan on their backs. Oddly these birds seem to have tan “sprinkles” all over. Even the “dirty” white appears to be an inviting light tan color. One bird that appears to be resting from its exertions has groups of tiny feathers standing up, perhaps as a reaction to the cold.
Less than a half-hour later starlings are coming out of the sky onto the lawn across the street like black snow. Some close to the window look like huge black snowflakes with curved wings and stubby bodies. They cover almost every bit of the grass pecking away. Unlike they did earlier, the birds exude no purple hue. On the edge of our patio, seemingly shell-shocked, is a robin looking at them and next to it, under a bush, is another apparently cowering. The starlings rise up en masse quickly, illuminated by the sun as their shadows briefly fall on the red brick colored roof.
Fifteen minutes later my wife says, “there they go.” Down a row of houses in the blue sky is a huge mass of black dots, all starlings. They swirl to the right in the now familiar roiling motion like black snow in a liquid-filled paperweight and start coming our way. There are a few hundred of them. They keep coming and coming until their black forms cover the sky over the house across the street and they pass above our rooftop.
My wife and I have had front row seats at this, the biggest starling show that I can remember. I tell myself that I should start to keep a record of when the starlings appear so I can look at it next year and not have to rely on memory. Then I remember my admonition to take a pair of binoculars when I go for a walk and how I fail to heed my own advice.
During the next few weeks, for reasons that defy explanation, I start keeping a detailed starling sightings record with dates, times, places and starling behavior and actually enjoy doing it. This year I will do the same, comparing it to last year so I don’t have to rely solely on memory. Who knows, I may even remember to take binoculars with me when I go for a walk.