Country diary: winter trees empty of leaves are filled with birds

In the near darkness of the pre-dawn, blackbirds perched high in the barren trees beside the lane sang with new vigour in the still, cold air. To the east a blur of lighter cloud stirred the sky, establishing the familiar line of the horizon. As the light grew, the blackbirds’ song, augmented now by those of robins, became more urgent – there was a growing sense that the weather was changing. By the time the sky had lightened to a uniformly grey dome, the birds were braced against the buffeting of the increasingly strong wind as it strained and roared around the branches.

Rain followed. Starting as nothing more than a thick mist that caught on the strands of wool along the fence, it escalated quickly. By late morning, the line of hills across the valley had all but disappeared behind the driving rain squalls and the wind was close to gale force. The sound of boughs moving in the surrounding woodland flowed and ebbed in a manner uncannily like broken surf approaching a beach.

Oak tree crown against dark cloud

The crown of a mature oak illuminated by unexpected sunshine. Photograph: John Gilbey

Sudden, intense bursts of hail seemed to ambush me as I walked down the lane. The sky darkened until a single crash of thunder rattled around the hills, briefly white from this new onslaught. As the clouds continued eastward, the crown of the mature oak in the corner of the field was illuminated by unexpected sunshine – highlighting the stark, ordered network of lichen-covered branches against the dark sky.

As dusk approached, large groups of starlings flew in low over the fields against the wind, rising only briefly to clear the hedge tops and trees. Gathering in the copse at the end of the lane, they chattered loudly, if not quite amicably, the noise peaking as several hundred others joined them on the crowded perch.

This is a regular stop on their route to the warmer urban roosts of the seafront, and once the whole mass of the flock was assembled, first one group then another rose into the evening sky – with a whirl of plumage followed by a sudden quiet. It was a truly spectacular sight, but a short time later I realised that I should have worn a hat.


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