Country Diary: golden plovers shine, even in the winter

Until the flock tilts towards the just-risen sun – until the glancing light brings out a soft brass sheen in the shifting mosaic of five hundred-plus birds in flight – I’m not sure what I’m watching, over the arable fields that abut the seashore here. The colour is the giveaway; golden plovers shine, even in the winter. I watch the flock pitch and roll, now showing fleeting white bellies, now that gorgeous brass glow, now turned obliquely and barely visible against the blue.

The flocking starlings are less cryptic. They jet about above the marshes by the lighthouse in sharp squadrons of a dozen or so. For the rest of the day they’ll be strung out along the coast road, peopling roof ridges and TV aerials, their scissoring calls backdropping the sea-front sounds of herring gull and oystercatcher.

I’ve doubled back at the lighthouse causeway, where ring plover, redshank and hunched, pale winter dunlin were working the tideline and rockpools. Now with the sea to my left I have to squint into the sun to make out the birds ranged on the shore. There are lapwing, upward of a hundred, facing uniformly south-east; when they rise, they rise together in a bluster of elbowing black-and-white wings, bother the lower air with their cries for a while, and then settle back to their positions. There are gulls, a mixed bunch, a black-headed majority (their chocolate summer hoods now no more than a thumb-smudge) making room on the rock for hulking herrings and lesser black-backs. And there, again, are the golden plovers, hardly more than silhouettes in the bright sun, but edged, still, in gold.

Out on the sea a solitary wintering red-necked grebe cuts southward across the swell. Further along and further out, a flock of maybe twenty common scoter – dark-bodied sea-ducks – skims the wave-tops, strung out in trademark front-heavy formation, in low flight towards the horizon.

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