Country diary: A vast murmuration of lapwings and starlings

Washburn Valley, North Yorkshire: Not all is as it should be here this autumn, making this seasonal spectacle especially welcome

Against the backdrop of a volatile October sky, 200 birds wheel above the pastures of the Washburn Valley in a huge interspecies flock, their collective shape moving and morphing constantly, like spilled mercury. The murmuration is mainly made up of lapwings, and it strobes between their plumage colours as it twists and turns, but dozens of starlings have joined the flock too, the movements of the two species synchronising perfectly to form a single entity.

The aerial herd eventually descends on a field that has been churned by vehicle tracks; presumably a mutual interest in the newly unearthed bounty of worms and invertebrates is what brought the birds together. As I watch, a party of black-headed gulls also descends on this open larder, and two kestrels perch on telephone wires nearby, making regular forays to the ground.

After being dispersed for the breeding season, lapwings and starlings flock back together for the cold months, and these aerial spectacles are a welcome seasonal sight. But the strikingly low level of Lindley Reservoir, despite recent rainfall, is a reminder that this is an unusual autumn, shaped by the strangeness of the summer, with its prolonged drought and frightening heat.

Here, as across the country, it was common to see younger hawthorn, horse chestnut and silver birch trees undergo an uncanny “false autumn” in early August, discarding foliage to retain moisture in branches and trunks. Other trees have gone the opposite way, showing no sign of shedding their summer green despite the seasonal schedule.

The world of autumn fruits is similarly askew. Blackberries have been almost entirely missing this month, as they fruited freakishly early in July. In other respects it feels like a lavish season; the hawthorn trees are densely adorned with berries and the ground is festooned with conkers, acorns and apples. This excess of fruit is potentially not a sign of health, though, but actually of heat stress, an emergency effort to produce more offspring in response to threat. It is a bountiful autumn harvest, but not an entirely comforting one.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary


Carey Davies

The GuardianTramp

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