August 28th, 2019
It starts with an eerie silence and a lonely sky at dusk. Waiting. Waiting. Patience, and a quiet that swells the sea air with anticipation. Then suddenly in the far, far distance a tiny speck; a winged black mark on a blue sky. No, two black marks. No, five. Ten. A hundred.
Within seconds the sky comes to life. Thousands of starlings flock towards land at dusk to roost, performing incredible and almost balletic movements together before they settle. They swoop, dive and thunder across the sky and seamlessly change shape and direction in perfectly choreographed movements.
The starling murmuration, as its known, is one of nature’s wonders. For centuries, humans have been amazed and almost hypnotised by the graceful aerial displays that starlings perform at dawn and dusk, which even today still aren’t completely understood. It is thought that starlings flock together for safety or to communicate quickly to each other, but new research has found that the way in which the birds move is highly intelligent.
Starlings follow relatively simple rules to achieve the incredible swooping displays; they stay close to their neighbour, but not so close so as to collide and they always fly in the same direction as the closest bird. And to do this, the starlings make thousands of tiny adjustments to their position and flight direction.
Scientists have also found that these clever birds do much more than look at one bird ahead of them. They’re looking at seven birds all around them and deeper into the flock, constantly monitoring what the other birds are doing so that they can predict when the flock will turn, and they begin their own movement when it does so, which is what allows the flock to move so quickly and elegantly.
Spot a Starling
One of the best places along the Welsh Coast to witness the starling murmuration is on Aberystwyth Pier and because the pier is quite short, spectators are close to the action. It’s thought that the starlings have been coming here for many years, and there are sometimes up to 30,000 of them at one time. The starlings like the pier because the open nature of the structure protects from ground predators like foxes, and also allows them to see aerial predators like peregrine falcons and buzzards.
The best time to see the starling murmuration at Aberystwyth is between November and March at either dawn or dusk. It’s at this time of year that native starlings are joined by thousands of their European cousins, particularly from Scandinavia and the Baltic states. These birds flock to Britain during the autumn to escape the cold, dark and harsh winters of their homelands. So despite being able to see huge numbers of starlings at Aberystwyth, not many of them are native birds. Starlings are listed birdsas a conservation concern in the UK because their breeding population has fallen by 70% in the last 20 years.