Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Strange Murmurings at Gretna

Tens of thousands of starlings against an evening sky at Gretna, Scotland

For those of you that follow my blog and my various other sites you will know that I live near to the Solway Firth in Scotland. It is a very important place for wildlife all year round but with winter approaching it becomes especially exciting.

Although autumn this year in Scotland ended much warmer than usual the temperature has been dipping in some more northerly countries. When this happens the bird populations in places like Russia, Scandinavia and Greenland look for favourable wind conditions and make their great escape before it becomes too late and they lose that all important 'window of opportunity'. In recent weeks we have seen, along with many other species, an influx of wigeon, whooper swans and thousands of barnacle geese. We have also had an influx of starlings. Starlings can be found all year round in Scotland but when winter comes migrant birds can boost the numbers significantly.

The murmuration passes close by
In late autumn and early winter starlings start to flock together in large numbers. These flocks are known as murmurations. Feeding off the land during the day the birds tend to move to a group roosting site as dusk falls. It is around these sites that the large murmurations can be seen. Although there are several such locations in the UK one of the best in the country is located near to the township of Gretna on the Scottish / English border. It is only ten minutes from where I live. From about November onwards, and throughout much of the winter, one of the most spectacular events in nature can be seen here. As the sun dips the first birds will start to fly towards the roosting site. In this instance it is a small area of woodland. First it is a mere handful of birds and then they start to arrive in tens or twenties. Soon it is streams of hundreds and then thousands that fly in and eventually the sky is filled with tens of thousands of starlings. Some of these may fly from twenty miles away to join the murmuration and the benefits of the group roosting site.

Thousands of starlings overhead
As the numbers swell the giant swarm moves about the sky creating wonderful shapes against the fading sunlight. The whole event will last about twenty to thirty minutes and then the woodland swallows them up. They spiral down into the trees like some large black funnel. The sky empties and the chatter of noisy starlings fills the wood.

So why do they do it? The answer is probably for several reasons. There is safety in numbers. It is harder for birds of prey to pick off starlings in a massive flock than it is to take a lone bird out of the sky. The starlings are more at risk of attack as they fly from their feeding grounds to their roosting sites. It is a brave bird of prey that would attack a swarm. The risk of injury is high. As the spectacle of the murmuration is at its peak it is not uncommon to see a peregrine falcon skirting the edge of the flock trying to isolate a lone bird or pick off a straggler. However it is not an easy task. Also, in a large roost it is harder for a predator to sneak up unnoticed. There may be many thousands of eyes watching and the entire flock can be warned instantly with one call of alarm. It is believed that this social behaviour may give rise to useful communication and transference of information; for example where the best feeding grounds lie. It is also easier for birds to keep warm in winter in large numbers. To some extent they will generate their own heat. 

Starlings create their own black starburst
I have observed these incredible murmurations many times now and still they never cease to amaze me. It is truly one of the most incredible events in nature and certainly in this part of the world!

Patterns in the sky - A giant murmuration



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Articles and photography copyright of Tom Langlands