Tag Archives: murmuration

The three flocks of Christmas

I love watching flocks of birds in the air. There’s a drama about them and it’s also an opportunity to see big numbers of wild creatures at the same time. Last winter (2015-16) a flock of 30-50 yellowhammers appeared in a hedgerow close by where I live, I think they were attracted by the cover provided by the hedgerow and the presence all around of low vegetation which offered ground cover and feeding opportunities. They were in a place where I hadn’t seen yellowhammers for three years or so, so it was really good to have then back.

yellowhammer-female-261216-0057A female yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella, Dansk: gulspurv)

The yellowhammer is red listed in the UK due to declining numbers as a result of habitat destruction (the number of times I have to write that is becoming increasingly worrying), but this year, after an initial estimate of 40-60 birds, I saw the whole flock in the air on Christmas Eve morning as I was walking the dog, and there were approximately 100 of them. (I spent several mornings trying to get a good yellowhammer picture to illustrate this post but they were never quite so amenable again, so the one above will have to suffice; lovely bird, the image less so, but you get the picture, as it were).

Later on Christmas Eve we drove to Northampton for the evening and on the way there, over the A14 near Huntingdon, a large flock of hundreds of lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk: vibe) took to the air from an adjacent field, and I think it’s the largest inland flock I’ve seen for many years. I’ve seen big flocks around the coast more recently, but not inland. And then, just as I thought, ornithological speaking, that things couldn’t really be bettered, a starling murmuration (Sturnus vulgaris, Dansk: stær) swirled over the western end of Stanwick in Northamptonshire and I estimated there must have been thousands and thousands of birds in it. And that’s one of natures truly amazing sights. Three spectacular flocks of increasingly endangered bird species was a wonderful way to start Christmas!

An unusual but entertaining day at work

Earlier this week I was learning about a technique called ‘dynamic light scattering’ (DLS) which is used to determine the size of very small particles, even those as small as protein molecules. My teacher was a scientist called Ken who designs and builds DLS machines. It came up in conversation that he lives close to the southern end of the M40 corridor where I’ve seen lots of red kites and read stories of them stealing food from people, so I asked if he sees them in his neighbourhood.

Red kite (Milvus milvus, Dansk: rød glente), this one was at Hamerton in Cambridgeshire

Red kites are big, distinctive, birds of prey and they’re a conservation success story in the UK, having been almost driven to extinction but then reintroduced in the 1990’s since when their numbers have rocketed. And as it happens they are very common indeed in that part of the world and Ken kindly agreed to upload this video clip to You Tube so I could post a link to it here. This all happened in Ken’s garden and I think it’s highly entertaining stuff,  I think I’d struggle every morning to get out the front door to go to work if I had this kind of show going on in my garden!

Later on, at the end of the same day, a big flock of a few thousand starlings were murmurating over the Cambridge Science Park as I left work to come home. I was keeping one eye on the starlings and one eye on the road when I stopped at a red traffic light on the edge of the Science Park and the starlings were swirling and wheeling around the sky just in front of me. Then a sparrowhawk drifted by but the starlings carried on murmurating until the hawk suddenly accelerated up towards them. Then all of the flocks shrunk down into very tight groups and focussed on taking evasive action. It was a piece of natural theatre going on in the sky which was spectacular to watch. Then the traffic lights went green and I had to move on so I didn’t get to see the culmination of the chase, but it was a captivating end to the day.

What a difference a frost makes

Having bemoaned the lack of wildlife in my garden, last Saturday the weather turned very cold here and after replenishing the bird feeders they were flocking in in droves! These resilient little guys were obviously finding sufficient sustenance elsewhere until the cold set in but now they’re here in numbers daily, and today we have had 10-15cm of snow and it hasn’t stopped yet so I reckon they’ll be around for a while longer too.

One of the species which I have missed because they are normally here all through the winter is the chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs, Dansk: bogfinke):

The cock chaffinch always adds a splash of welcome colour

Chaffinch are resident breeders in the UK and can generally be seen and heard in trees and hedgerows all year round. Another resident breeder I hadn’t in the garden or in the countryside much this year was the dunnock (Prunella modularis, Dansk: jernsurv), the archetypal ‘LBJ‘ or ‘Little Brown Job’. When viewed closely they’re anything but LBJ’s. They feed on the ground so I always throw a handful of seed in the undergrowth for them. This little guy has been terrorised by my resident robin, but the arrival of a second robin has given him respite as my resident no longer has his eye on the ball.

My dunnock keeping one eye on the ground for seed while the other looks for the robin

The coal tit (Periparus ater, Dansk: sortmejse) is a pine tree specialist, seeking insects and spiders in the summer and seeds in the winter. This makes it a bit of a mystery here because we have very few conifers in the vicinity, but there are at least two flitting in and out of the garden all day:

The coal tit waiting it’s turn to get on the seed tray

A blue tit (Cyanistes caerulius, Dansk: blåmajse) about to join the coal tit and grab a seed

Starling – (Sternus vulgaris, Dansk: stær)

Starlings are a bird that used to be very common and would murmurate in humungous numbers but this only happens now in a very few places. When I was an undergrad in Liverpool they would gather on icy winters evenings over Old Haymarket in vast numbers. The aerial manouvres were breathtaking, as was the acrid ammoniacal stench from the guano left behind on the pavements! I generally only see them in small flocks of a few tens these days, but they regularly come and avail themselves of the fatballs in my garden. And they’re more than welcome!

And finally, usually the most visible diner at my avian restaurant, the ubiquitous blackbird. Even they were conspicuous by their relative absence until very recent weeks, but now they’re back in  numbers:

And no English garden is complete without a feisty blackbird (Turdus merula, Dansk: solsort). Having said that, according to the British Trust for Ornithology the blackbird is a ‘Migrant/Resident Breeder, Passage/Winter Visitor’ and they migrate within the UK but also in winter we get an influx from Europe coming from Germany and Poland and other parts of eastern Europe. It makes me chuckle that whilst us folk moan about the weather and then jet off to the Canary Isalands in the winter, the blackbirds are coming here to make the most of our balmy winter climate. Just goes to show, everything’s relative!

Murmuration

Did anyone see the article about ‘murmuration on the BBC news website yesterday?

This is the technical term for the aerial swarms of starlings that occur immediately prior to settling into their roost site in the evening.

It’s phenomenon I’ve seen before but not for many years. I was an undergraduate in Liverpool in the mid 1980’s and I recall on winter evenings there were frequently murmuratons of starlings going on over St Johns Garden behind St Georges Hall in the centre of the city.

This is a great name for one of natures truly spectacular, and mesmerising, events. I don’t know how many birds were involved in the murmurations I saw but I believe it can be up to tens of thousands. The overhead spectacle is awesome, and in a rather different respect so is the effect it has on the pavements beneath… and the resultant stench!

The BBC article refers to some new research from two Italian biologists who studied the flocks of starlings over Rome, and using clever camera work they divined how the birds maintain the shape of the flock. There was also speculation about why they murmurate. I think it must be down to evasion of predators such as peregrine falcons.

I can’t resist the temptation to gratuitously insert one of my starling photographs here, because on an individual level aswell as in enormous swarms they are beautiful creatures. They have sumptuously iridescent plumage particularly when they catch sunlight at the right angle:


Sturnus vulgaris

Alas, I don’t have any of my own photographs of murmurations but I intend to rectify that situation in the future, at which time I will post again about these endearing creatures.