The marvel of a starling murmuration

A starling murmuration.

A starling murmuration. - Credit: Albert Beukhof (Shutterstock)

The sun sank quickly and the already chill air wrapped a scarf of colder damp about my face and neck. The sky was left a gentle orange and across it began to stream birds, mainly southwards but coming from every corner of my vision.

Long v-lines of gulls heading to their nighttime rest – a London reservoir perhaps – and nervous thrushes, fieldfares and redwings, arrowed down to roost. From my vantage point overlooking the gravel pits I could see the thrushes dive into the thickest parts of scrub, wheezes and chacking notes conveying a sense of dread at fleeing an unseen predator in the shadows.

Towards the water the thick willow scrub gave way to reeds, rustled by the wind and into which dropped little reed buntings, vanishing into the camouflage for the night. From far and near, ring-necked parakeets squawked their way home in small groups of 10 or 20.

With the final squawk they will perhaps number over 500 birds gathered in the tall poplars surrounding the water works. But they are not the only flock of significance tonight.

As I have watched the drama of the skies so little flocks of starlings have whizzed in, some right past my head and accumulated on the pylon wires over looking the pits. From all directions they gather, stringing out like beads along the wires and adding a serration to the usually smooth metalwork of the pylon. And then, at some unknown signal, they lift in unison and flow out over the water, a mass of dots in sausage formation.

And then it happens with a subtle twist the flock rolls back on itself darkening the thickened part and becoming three dimensional as it does. Like smoke the flock billows, ebbs and flows in curves and amoebic shapes: an extraordinary performance of close-knit synchronized flight

 Each pulse and wave is breathtaking, back and forth and growing all the time as latecomers race to join the party. At its peak there must be in excess of two thousand birds and yet, for all its marvel, I know this is just a small ‘murmuration’.

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Over the Avalon Marshes in Somerset an estimated one million starlings flocked over the reedbeds in January this year, darkening the skies in a constant stream and drawing gasps of amazement from the assembled crowd. It is one of nature’s great marvels and this winter it is happening on our doorstep at Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits.

While the flock can’t compete with that over the Avalon Marshes it nevertheless has the power to mesmerize as walkers are stopped in their tracks to take in this dramatic performance of precision and beauty. Starling murmurations are perhaps something we have all seen on BBC television programs but there is no comparison to actually standing beneath a real live murmuration.

Nothing can replicate the beauty of the setting, the cool of the evening and the whirring of thousands of wings overhead. Before long the aerial spectacle is over and as if some great, unseen jug has reached its tipping point the starling mass pours down into the reed bed and vanishes from sight.

A raucous din of whistles, chatter and starling excitement fills the last remnants of daylight, as if the reed bed has become one large hissing amplifier. And then, as if a switch has been flicked and it is finally lights out, the seething mass falls utterly silent and still. Were you to arrive at the scene seconds later you would be none the wiser as to the two thousand warm little bodies just a stone’s throw from where you stood!

The drama is immense and remarkable when you remember that by day these birds are squabbling scroungers, often in the lowliest of housing estates and town centres, eking out an existence on scraps and bird tables. And yet their glory is in the twilight hour when they exchange their mortal individuality for a massed aerial body of beauty.

It is perhaps this sense of the spiritual that captivates us as we watch – a miracle of movement that is simply free from conscious clumsiness and instead seems to be an expression of unbridled being.