I would like in this post to introduce my new short film Starlings. This short contains footage of starlings at Rigg, Gretna Green shot on 4th January of this year, and even though I say so myself, after five years of capturing the murmurations of these amazing birds, I am extremely happy with the footage, even though it was recorded on just a compact camera.
In this post I would like to talk a little more about the behaviour of the starlings, and hopefully I will be able to do so without losing any of the intense excitement and wonder I feel each time I see them. I cannot really say I study the starlings from a complexity science perspective, but I do my best to observe, and what I feel blessed about is the fact that I have been able to observe the starlings in so many different ways which I will explain shortly. But first I thought I should say a little about where the starlings are.
You may need to click on the map above to see Gretna. It lies on the southern most part of the border of Scotland and England, and it is not only starlings which flock there. In the 18th century, marriage laws in England were tightened to the age of 21, but in Scotland the laws were much more relaxed, where couples could marry at the age of 16. Since it could have often be the case that an angry father-in-law was in pursuit of young runaway lovers, marriages would often take place in Grenta, the very first town actually lying on the Scottish border. Nowadays Gretna is seen as the most romantic town in the UK, and many weddings still take place, some in the now famous Blacksmiths Shop.
Gretna is a small town with a population of just under 3,000. Gretna Green is a small village next to Gretna, and this is where the majority of weddings take place. On the map above I have placed four markers, A, B, C and D to show the differing location of the starlings since 2009.
For many years, the starlings would gather and fly just to the north of Gretna Green (location A and the photo above). This was an easily accessible location for people to park and view the birds, which would settle down in the copse which you can see in the photo below (taken in sub zero temperatures with numb and painful hands, but it was worth it).
However, from what I understand, these trees became so damaged by the starlings that a new ground was sought, and so from 2012 it became a little more difficult to know exactly where the starlings would be. The starlings arrive in November in order to escape the harsh winters in Russia and Scandinavia and reports suggest that for the first few weeks they have no single base, often being seen flying over the centre of Gretna itself.
In December of 2011 it took Maria and I three attempts to track down the roosting location of the starlings. I am originally from Dumfries, and so it is possible for Maria and I to visit easily when we return each Christmas. People travel from around the UK to see the starlings, so it can be a little disheartening for some who arrive with just one opportunity to see them. One one of these attempts, we could only see the starlings from afar and with a very restricted view in the field in which we were standing. However, while many of you will have seen the really spectacular footage of starlings in their many thousands, I love the build up, which starts at around 3.30pm. In this particular field small groups of maybe ten or twenty would zoom across the fields, and would speed past our legs, they were that low. It really is quite incredible just how fast the brains of starlings must be to avoid colliding with us, and this too is a quite exhilarating experience.
In January of 2012, on our third attempt, we discovered that the starlings had moved across the M74 to location B. Our vantage point was a little elevated, but what was quite amazing this time was the fact that the starlings were no longer in a copse or wood, but in a hedgerow along the road where we were standing. After flying, starlings pour down like rain to roost for the night, and to be so close to this was intense, even afterwards when they have not quite settled but are still singing and chattering away.
I have already written a fairly long article about our experience with the starlings in January of 2013 (see Starlings at Gretna Green, January 2013). We discovered that the starlings had moved yet again to the little hamlet of Rigg, just outside of Gretna, and the video above was taken at position C. I was standing in the gap you see in the middle of the copse above the ‘C’, and the starlings were flying extremely low, making for a quite dramatic film in which you also are able to hear the bellowing sounds of their wings flapping in unison.
This time our Christmas and New Year in the UK, like most people in the UK, was filled with intense storms, rain and flooding, pretty much the worst conditions you could have for watching starlings. Maria and I made two visits, and we decided to return to Rigg in the hope that the starlings would still be there. Luckily they were, but Maria was suffering from a slight cold so she watched from our car while I galavanted off through the muddy fields looking for a good spot.
At this point I need to say that Scotland has different access rights to land than the rest of the UK, and for me as a person who loves being out in nature this is extremely important. However, although we have the right to roam the land (some exceptions do apply), it is still extremely important to respect both farms, farmland and especially cattle, and for me I do my utmost to both “leave no trace” and also avoid fields with sheep and cows. The starlings this time were gathering in location D, and so I had to make my way through the extremely boggy copse to the fields the other side. I did see some cattle but after investigation I saw that they were in another field some distance from me. While waiting I was joined by three muntjac deer who gathered nearby, another great treat for me.
At first the starlings began to gather the other side of the farm which you can see in the photo above. But as more and more flocks joined the main group, the starlings began to fly into the field in which I was standing, and this was my first experience of starlings flying directly above me, which you can gain some idea of what this was like in the photo above. Luckily for Maria, the car was parked in a slightly elevated position to these fields, and she too had a surprisingly good view of the display.
Before I discuss our final trip to see the starlings and my film, I thought that I would discuss some of the great research being carried out to model the flight of starlings. Starlings can fly at up to 36 km/h, have reaction time of 100 milli seconds and appear to be able to track the movements of up to seven starlings deep in the flock. Some of the most advanced work in this area comes from Professor Charlotte Hemelrijk and scientific programmer Hanno Hildenbrandt who have developed a computer model called StarDisplay, and an earlier EU funded Starflag project.
These models are generated from data taken from photographs of the flocks from two different locations. This allows individual starlings to be tracked, but the work is painstaking and difficult, as the cameras have to be synchronised and many frames studied to ensure accurate tracking. At present the models are still limited, and still do not include factors such as feeding behaviour, behaviour related to avoiding predatory birds, wind and turbulence, but they still offer insights as to how such complex behaviour (much more complex than seen in schooling patterns in shoals of fish) can arise from a relatively limited set of rules.
What is also missing at this stage are the decision making processes. What leads the flocks to decide to move from one roosting ground to another, and how is this decision made collectively? Also missing, as I have mentioned previously, are the patterns of behaviour in the build up, such as the waiting in small groups, be it on the ground, in trees or along power lines and on pylons.
On January 4th Maria and I decided to visit Keswick, a small and attractive town in the north Lake District, which as you will see from the first map lies to the south of Dumfries in England. It was still wet and windy, and with Maria still having a bit of cold we did not manage to go walking as we originally had hoped. But we found ourselves arriving at Gretna on our way home at around 3.30, and with only trainers on our feet we decided to stop off and see the starlings once more. This time we parked on the very small lane near the farm, and to our amazement, the rains stopped, the clouds parted, and for what could have been the first time in weeks, we were treated to a stunning sunset in near windless conditions.
When we arrived there were just a few birds on the power lines, but these were soon joined by more groups, which while initially being formed of maybe thirty or forty so birds, gradually become larger. Indeed, while on our way to Rigg a couple of days earlier, the roosting ground, we did see an extremely large flock flying over the Channel of River Esk, wetlands to the south of Gretna where access is impossible. Although it was tempting to park the car some distance from this spot to watch from afar, I really felt that Rigg would be the place to wait, and so this turned out to be the case.
As the sun began to set, and the orange light turned to darker purple, ever more groups of starlings joined the pulsating flock. The flock was like one single breathing organ, expanding and contracting, and you will see this in the first couple of minutes of the film. As the starlings spread out, they came straight over us forming a huge living canopy. In case you are wondering, amazingly there was barely a mark on us despite being under the starlings for so long a time, but our car, which was parked just metres from us, did get more of a covering.
At 2 mins 40 into my film, you will see an extremely large group of starlings arrive and merge with the flock. This is one of the most amazing abilities, the fact that starlings do not crash or bump despite moving in very different directions.
Around 5 minutes into the film you will see that the sun has set and the sky has become a little darker. The starlings moved across the road from where we were standing into a different field, one which contained their roosting site. The display intensifies as the group reaches its peak size, with the birds flying in more dense formations.
In the lat couple of minutes of my film, you will see the starlings draw ever closer to the trees, and begin to dive down in droves. It never ceases to amaze me how fast they do this. It is definitely worth not leaving too soon, since it is quite possible to be extremely close to the starlings to hear them chatter away along with the beating of wings before they finally settle for the night.
I hope you enjoy my film. I do have an HD version which both Maria and I will be using in our work in strategy, change management and innovation helping people in business become inspired by nature. We love to show people the aerial displays of starlings, and then ask what words come to mind when watching. Below are just some of inspiration from a recent workshop I ran on complexity and leadership, and you will see just what wide range of behaviours and qualities come to mind.
Although at times it can seem that we are losing ourselves in technology and suffering from nature deficit disorder more and more, this does not have to be the case. There is still a huge amount we have to learn from nature, there are still many things that our fellow creatures and beings do better than us, and if we manage to stay humble, we will be able to develop technology in harmony with both people and planet, working collectively with trust, where creativity flows, joyfully and happily.