Eastbourne has a wealth of magnificent Georgian and Victorian architecture and its waterfront, especially, is always a pleasant place for a stroll. We found ourselves there about an hour before sunset one winter (at that time 4pm) and were fortunate enough to witness the gathering of tens of thousands of starlings above its famous Pier. They were performing their ritualistic and visually-bizarre aerial dance prior to roosting under its structure. Of course, we’d left our camera behind and the old phone wasn’t up to it . . .
Fortunately others have captured similar events
The birds amassed flock by interconnecting flock above the pier in the gathering dusk. Smaller flocks were arriving, funnelling into the whole and while its mass grew ever-larger by the moment, it was constantly changing shape and direction. It was like a gigantic, shape-changing amoeba as seen under a microscope. With a quick flick, the whole mass would flex as one, stretching and contracting, ever-mobile yet one apparent mass. It was remarkably reminiscent of the collective movement of a school of fish. In the absence of tropical sunsets, it rated highly as coastal entertainment.
The phenomenon is not, however, unique to Eastbourne, the English coast, or even the U.K. – far from it. It occurs wherever starlings feature as a local bird. But some years they simply do not appear, only to mysteriously return in the following year, their whereabouts during their absence quite unknown and leaving ornithologists and twitchers scratching their heads.
Yes, these phenomena are called murmurations – certainly a strange word. The following excerpts, from wonderopolis.org., go some way to explain them:
“Some scientists believe murmurations are similar to other systems such as the formation of crystals, avalanches, metals becoming magnetized and liquids turning to gases. These systems are “on the edge,” which means they’re ready to be completely transformed in an instant.
Like the elements of these other systems, each starling in a murmuration is connected to every other starling. Scientists liken a murmuration when it turns in unison to a phase-transition.
It’s easy to understand how one starling knows to turn when its neighbour turns, since they’re close together and can see each other. What scientists still don’t understand, though, is how hundreds or thousands of starlings seem to know when to turn simultaneously, when birds at opposite ends of the flock are separated by space and hundreds or thousands of other birds. Regardless of the size of the murmuration, all the birds seem to be connected to the same network. This phenomenon puzzles scientists, because it goes beyond what we know from biology about how animals behave. The mystery of the murmuration is a fascinating example of a natural phenomenon that hides secrets about the world that scientists have still yet to uncover!”
Here is a classic YouTube clip of a beautiful murmuration:
Gretna Green Starling Murmurations
Another of this world’s beautiful mysteries.