Country diary: Swimming with the starlings

Hayling Island, Hampshire: Their communal bath is such a frenzy of activity that it feels as though I’m watching them on fast forward

We arrive at the beach just after sunrise, though there is no sun to be seen. Dingy grey stratus clouds blanket the sky, and on the other side of the Solent, the Isle of Wight is obscured by mist.

Sewage-overflow alerts have kept us landbound for several weeks so we dawdle on the shore, contemplating the water, murky with what we hope is now just sediment stirred up by the wind and waves. For the first time this autumn, there is a noticeable chill in the air, and though the sea temperature has only dropped one degree since our last swim, we are anxiously anticipating the cold bite of the water.

As I pull on my neoprene boots and gloves, a squadron of starlings wheels overhead. While thousands-strong amorphous murmurations are undoubtedly one of the most breathtaking wildlife spectacles at this time of year, I’m just as entranced by this modest gathering of about 16 birds. Swooping in, they line up on a wall, whistling and chattering to one another. One scruffy individual hops down and waddles over to a large, shallow pool that has formed in a depression in the shingle. It dips its toes into the water, hesitates for a moment, then takes the plunge.

Its breast and belly submerged, the bird rapidly dunks its head, shimmies its body and flicks its wings, showering its back with droplets of water. This is the signal for the rest of the flock to pile into the communal bath. Spray flies in all directions as they jostle and splash. There is such a frenzy of activity that it feels as though I’m watching them on fast forward.

Field guides often describe the starling’s white-speckled winter plumage as dull, but as they perch atop the beachfront restaurant’s sign to preen and dry their wet, spiked feathers, there’s a hint of the rainbow-reflecting metallic gloss of their breeding finery. Two juveniles are still in transition to adult plumage, their dull greyish-brown heads and spangled bodies giving them the appearance of children caught trying on their parents’ clothes.

Spurred on by these enthusiastic avian dippers, I leave them to their toilette and lead our intrepid flock of Bluetits swimmers into the surf.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary


Claire Stares

The GuardianTramp

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