A great murmur in the sky

Up to 250,000 starlings gathered at Ripon City Wetlands Nature Reserve
Towards the end, they grouped so close together they looked like a giant slithering anaconda

I was fortunate recently to go and watch the incredible starling murmuration that has been happening most days over the past few months at the Ripon City Wetlands, a nature reserve managed by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.

Because this one was causing quite the stir, I decided it was worth the effort of travelling the hour or so to see it. There’s no guarantee that our feathered friends will put on a performance, and the weather can be a factor (rain puts them off), but I was very lucky to witness an incredible spectacle, the like of which I have never experienced before. It was proper bucket list stuff.

The show started just after 5pm with a warm up of just a few posses of birds flying and swooping around the lakes and trees. Gradually, these groups grew larger as they merged together, and more groups flew in, until the sky was filled with a colossal mass of around a quarter of a million starlings. From a distance it looked like the biggest swarm of bees you’ll ever see, the whole lot at times seeming to move as one, swirling and swooping in unison as if performing some highly choreographed dance where every participant knew their role and their moves. Every now and then a few would break away to create huge floating, liquid shapes in the sky.

What surprised me was the relative quiet. Starlings are known for their animated chatter, but during the murmuration they were completely mute, and as the grey cloud of birds drew closer to where I was standing, all I could hear was a constant whooshing sound generated by thousands and thousands of fluttering wings. As the massive flock flew directly over my head, it felt like an enormous ceiling in fan whirring above me.

As the sun started to set and the sky grew darker, the flock grew denser, the birds grouping closer and closer together, so that they resembled a brooding storm cloud, churning above the earth. The spectacle was building to a crescendo and the cloud of birds appeared to morph into a huge black anaconda, slithering at speed much closer to the water and reed beds of the wetlands. If you’ve ever watched a Harry Potter film and seen the flying dementors, you have some idea of what it looked like. It was simply mesmerising. Then all of a sudden, this great big snake swooped up and slithered round until, suddenly, it merged into the vegetation and was gone. The whole display lasted a good forty minutes, and was possibly one of the best natural shows I have ever had the privilege to see.

Only once they had roosted did the starlings begin to chatter, and with so many in such close quarters, it was quite the racket! But why do starlings murmurate? And why so many in one place? A gathering of 100,000 starlings is considered a large murmuration, but at Ripon the estimates range from 150,000 to 250,000 birds.

It is thought that the reason they flock together like this is because there is more safety in numbers. If you are flying in a large group, then it is much more difficult for a predator, like the peregrine falcon, to single you out. And once you roost, huddling together in large groups is a very effective way of keeping warm. Being very social creatures, starlings take the opportunity share information about the best places to source food too.

One of the reasons that so many have gathered in Ripon is that over the past few years the City Wetlands have worked hard to improve the quality of their lakes and reed beds, making them a very attractive habitat. News among the starling community has obviously spread, and now smaller murmurations that would occur at neighbouring sites, such as Staveley and Nosterfield nature reserves, have moved over to Ripon.

One thing that occurred to me while I looked to the heavens as the thousands of birds flew over was that those of us on the ground were sitting targets for their – how shall I put it – mucky missiles! No sooner had that thought crossed my mind that I looked down to the phone in my hand and a slimy deposit landed slap bang in the middle of the screen.

Does that make me lucky or unlucky I wonder?

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 24th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 22nd March 2023

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