Late yesterday afternoon, as I was coming back to the house after feeding the chickens their afternoon treat of mixed corn, a strange sound was added to the background noise of country life. As well as birdsong and the screech of jays in the oaks, a distant tractor and the barking of a dog on a neighbouring hillside, suddenly there was a sound like rushing water, or the wind in in storm-tossed branches. Yet it hasn't rained for over a week, and the breeze was only light. It was neither water nor wind. I knew exactly what it was, and my heart lifted.
Further up the hill, a couple of fields away, a huge flock of starlings was gathering in preparation to fly off to their roost for the night. Some years they regularly fly right over the house. Other years I see them only from a distance, or catch a glimpse of a swirling flock as I'm driving home from work. A few years back a great cloud of them descended into the garden, and since then I have watched the winter skies avidly in hope of seeing them. This winter I have seen them regularly, but mostly at a distance, so now I craned my neck expectantly.
The flock didn't come any closer to the house, but through the bare winter bones of the hedge I could see more birds flying in to join the assembly. Every so often the noise level would suddenly dip for a brief moment before the whole flock lifted off in practise flight before regrouping on the ground or the tall trees at the field's edge. This happened several times, until triggered by some signal imperceptible to me, they were ready. The sound dropped for a moment and then the entire flock swept into the sky with a huge rush of wings, awe-inspiring even from a distance. They whirled in a morphing cloud like one great organism, and were off.
I stood spellbound for a moment as the magic faded and normality returned. Then, murmuring a blessing to the beautiful flock on their journey, I returned to the house. Time for me to light the fire, start the evening meal and prepare my own roost for the night.