I begin this first post of 2013 with some very sad news. On 29th of December Henri Bortoft, a greatly loved philosopher and teacher passed away peacefully. Henri was most well known for his seminal work “The Wholeness of Nature – Goethe’s Way of Science” and had recently published his latest work “Taking Appearance Seriously”. I will be publishing a full tribute very soon, but it seems fitting to be starting with my own short musings on one of the greatest manifestations of wholeness and collective behaviour in nature – the murmurations of starlings.
Starlings at Gretna Green, January 2013
Maria and I have been spending the last couple of weeks or so back in Scotland staying at my parents. If you visit my blog regularly you will know that both Maria and I like to talk and write about starlings. I have been coming to see them at Gretna Green for the last three years, but recently they have been moving around this area, and it has taken two or three visits to find their roosting ground.
Last year was spectacular, when Maria and I took a couple of Brazilian friends to see them. We found the idea viewing spot on a small hillock, and to our amazement the starlings all rained down just a few metres in front of us into the hedgerow along the track where we had been standing.
In November a few newspapers published photos of the starlings, and they seemed to be flying around the actual small town itself as opposed to just outside of the urban area. With the mild Christmas Maria and I have been managing to get out into nature in the raw countryside in Galloway and the Lake District. On our way back from Keswick, we popped in to see if at least we could find the best viewing location, and took chase in our car through the residential back streets. We did see a few small groups, but we were obviously no where near the main roosting ground.
A few days ago we came to Gretna again. I was confident of our location for viewing having watched a recent video on Vimeo, and messaged the filmmaker with a few questions as to where the footage was shot. However, all we could see was starlings flying out in an easterly direction, so again we took off in our car, leaving Gretna and travelling along the minor back roads along the Solway of Firth coast. We ended up in Rigg, a tiny hamlet, where I stopped the car. In the distance across a field we could see the starlings, but we only had trainers on so all we could do was watch, and vow to come back better equipped.
So this time (yesterday) Maria and I went to Rigg, not Gretna, and parked by the field. We saw no starlings where we were, but in the distance a few small groups, and so we set off on foot to see if there was a better place to find them. In the top photo you can see Maria by the side of the small road we walked down. In the trees in the distance starlings were starting to gether.
While the flight of starlings is spectacular, both Maria and I love to see the “decision making” and behaviour of the starlings before they start their murmurations, or aerial acrobatic display. We thought we would be in luck as there was some rare sunshine over the late afternoon cloud, but it was windy. A few more small groups of starlings flew overhead, and so I ran back to the car to again take chase down the road.
While the photo above is not spectacular, and you can hardly see the starlings in the distance, it does show the field where hundreds of starlings were gathering on the ground. I was worried that the winds would be too strong for them, and just as I have done in the past, was beginning to feel that we would not be in luck this time as the sun began to set. However, every so often a large group would fly right overhead, as you can see in the photo below. However, we could not see a single large group as we have done in the past, just some groups gathering in trees and on power cables.
We decided to jump into the car and had back into Rigg. I couldn’t believe what we were seeing in the distance again, all the starlings! It may have been a terrible decision, but I left Maria and absolutely sprinted down the field. The starlings were still some distance away, so I flew over two more large gates, and sprinted down a darkened field, not caring how deep the flooding was, splashing in the mud and pools of water.
What was waiting for me was a sight to take my breath away. Up above the trees were thousands and thousands of starlings, now part way through their display. I looked back and saw Maria making her way slowly in the distance. I decided to stay there so she would still have me in sight, and I enjoyed the somewhat obscured show.
Maria has a very calm head on her, and it was Maria who said to me to progress forward over the next two gates and into a small track which although I suppose was for farm vehicles, left me shin high in mud. I hopped over a small fence and into a little copse. This gave me the most insane view of starlings I think I have ever had. I was so close I could hear their wings flapping, and at times the sound was like a gentle wave breaking on the shore.
I really felt that Maria and I were blessed to have been able to find the starlings. Many people travel to Gretna each year to see them, some from some distance away, but as you can see from this story, it took us a couple of attempts to find them. We hope to go back one last time now that we know where they are and I hope to take some more video footage. Often photos do not do justice, so I hope you enjoy my video, and you will also be able to hear them on this video as well.
The quality is not amazing as I do not have a video camera, I was just using my instant compact camera, but you will really see just what an incredible experience it is to watch them fly. I have recently purchased a new book “Smart Swarm” which is about ants, termites, fish and starlings and how their intelligent behaviour can teach humans about design, communication and decision making. It discussed the latest research on how starlings manage to fly in such a spectacularly complex fashion, but it will be interesting to really see if this research covers perhaps the less exciting but no less interesting pre-flight decision making behaviour too. Both Maria and I love watching the main group build just from tiny groups into the huge swarm you see in the photos and video above.
I often say that there is no better artist than mother nature. This is not just the artistry in the creation of beautiful plants, foliage, terrain and animals, but also in the absolutely mind-blowing ballets of starlings, something that is definitely one of the greatest natural wonders of the world.