THE land John has farmed for many years has not offered him the easiest of soils to work. Our village, nicknamed, Stickfast, because of the tenacious quality of the predominately clay soil, has been home to five farms. All of them, including ours, growing grass to support cattle and sheep. But although none of our land was ever considered worthy of protected status or special scientific interest, John has always safeguarded migratory birds that visited us.

These visitors were, however, far more interested in wetlands near to our farm and so we have been privileged to observe the passage and gathering of different species as they sought shelter during the winter months. Recently we have been interested to notice large flocks of starlings passing over in the late afternoon, just prior to dusk. Talking to a friend he invited us to see where they were heading to. A plantation of willows that offered the birds shelter and protection at night. The willows grow in close proximity to wetlands that support a large number of waterfowl that include swans, mallard, teal, wigeon and pochard.

This land is too wet to farm and, as it floods regularly it is largely unimproved, offering wildfowl a rich habitat to take shelter in and feed over winter. We were keen to see where the starlings were heading, and so off we trundled down the lane to our friend’s farm in the Gator. A vehicle much more suited to travelling over wetlands than the Discovery. I mean, heaven forbid we should get John’s precious new means of transport dirty.

Parked up we waited for the first few birds to appear. Winging across the sky, a small group of starling suddenly shot over us and off again into the distance. Then another. Then another. The flock gradually increasing as more birds joined together.

Eventually just before dusk a huge number of birds, chased by a lone peregrine falcon I noted forlornly trying it keep up with the whirling mass, darkened the sky above us. It was like watching a plume of threatening black smoke that shifted and changed shape. A murmuration of starlings. Swooping and diving through the sky. A vast swarm of birds not one of who, seemed in any danger of bumping into each other.

Apparently, each bird follows the movement of the birds closest to it. Starlings, and I have no idea as to how this has been measured either, have lightning fast reactions, less than 100 milliseconds. top notch spatial awareness and can fly close to each other at speeds of up to 20mph while keeping a safe distance. The poor old falcon didn’t stand a chance.

Then suddenly, and this happened in seconds, almost like water disappearing down a plug hole, the birds dropped down out of sight into the willows. We were left gawping. One minute birds spinning and turning above us. Next nothing. A true wonder of nature.