Thursday, 15 November 2012

Starlings: A Great Murmuration.

The flock builds over the Hayling Lake
The sight of several thousand starlings manoeuvring in tight formation to escape from a sparrow hawk is one of the greatest wildlife spectacles that we have in the UK. The hawk may fly in rapid, level flight straight at the tight ball of birds so that it splits into two tadpole shapes that try to reform before the next pass.

I spent yesterday evening trying to photograph about 4,000 starlings as they came in to their autumn roost in the reeds on the Hayling Pit. At 4 pm there wasn’t a starling in sight, then small pods of birds flew over towards the river and then back. Little groups of five or six birds would join together on each sweep across the lake and within minutes I was looking at about 800 starlings, then 2000. The flock just drifted in a loose, silent, amorphous cloud at tree-top height until the first hawk appeared. They immediately formed a dense black ball and I could hear the rush of their wings each time they turned. As the birds bunched together against the darkening sky, they formed a dense enough mass for my camera’s autofocus to work, but the shots were still disappointingly static. The subject is much better suited to video.
A sparrow hawk (bottom left) panics the birds.

After switching to video mode I filmed repeated attacks by up to three hawks that shattered the growing flock into abstract strings, blobs and swirls. Then, suddenly at 4.30, the birds just dropped into the reeds and it was all over except for a loud, invisible murmuration that continued for five more minutes.

Sadly, sights like these are becoming rarer across Europe as starlings are declining in numbers. It is quite likely that the Paxton roost is composed of continental birds because we know from ringing returns that British starlings tend to prefer to roost in warm city centres. In the 1970s there are records of roosts with nearly 2 million birds in the same flock, but these are long gone now.

I strongly recommend that you go to the Hayling Pit around sunset to see the show for yourselves, and take a camera. Usually, the birds use the roost until Christmas and then move on to somewhere else.