Murmuration Once Again
We were concerned last year when our hosting or murmuration of starlings didn’t occur that the cycle may have been broken, and that their annual displays might be over for good. Well, we needn’t have worried. In January of 2015 many thousands of starlings gathered again to roost in the evergreen trees in Dalgan and Bawnmore.
Throughout January and February and into mid March they delighted us with their dramatic aerial acrobatics, massing into huge numbers, then dividing into several densely packed groups, turning and twisting in ever changing shapes across the evening sky. It’s an amazing wildlife phenomenon, it’s awe inspiring, and, it’s free. Well, it’s free if you don’t count the cleanup afterwards. For those winter weeks cars around the village can no longer classed as blue or black or red. They all become polka dot. Many thousands of starlings in dense formations produce many thousands of droppings. If it is, as they say a sign of good luck to be successfully targeted with bird poo, then I have to be one of the luckiest people around.
In early December 2014, Mooney Goes Wild asked for communities to nominate their starling murmurations for a special programme. We considered entering ours, but last years no show and their late arrival this year discouraged us from doing so. The honour went to a hosting of starlings on Lough Ree. Birdwatch Ireland members from the Westmeath Branch conducted informal tours for curious visitors to the area. Interestingly, they re-directed Dublin visitors to return home via Geashill to see our murmuration as well.
Last year we asked the question, why do starlings perform this aerial ballet, and in such huge numbers? Strength and safety in numbers is one obvious answer. If you are one in a flock of twenty thousand your chances of becoming dinner for a sparrowhawk or kestrel are much less than if you are out on your own. Twenty thousand pairs of eyes are also going to pick up danger more quickly than one pair. Those rapidly changing shapes may also confuse the bird of prey making it hard for it to focus on a single target. Another suggestion, is that after a long cold day foraging in open fields they fly rapidly in order to raise their body temperatures before crowding together in their roosts.
Don’t be too hard on starlings. They may be a bit aggressive at the bird table, but they are great mimics and can copy the songs of other birds, human voices, and even machinery. They do have a cheeky way about them, but up close they have the most beautiful colouration.
On the evening of March 18th this year, a huge flock gathered over Lalors avenue. They didn’t mass tightly this time, but flew around in a single, loose, stately group before dropping into the trees. The following evening , Thursday March 19th they were gone. The temperatures had risen sufficiently to encourage the Irish starlings that it was time to start building nests and breeding. The many thousands of starlings from mainland Northern Europe made their journeys home to do the same. Nothing left for us but to wash the car and wait for next years’ arrival.
The Winter of 2013/14 has been a quiet one without our visiting flocks of starlings, perhaps because it hasn’t been as cold as usual. Geashill has enjoyed one of nature’s most extraordinary sights for many years, however with many thousands of birds swarming together forming what is called a “murmuration”. By late afternoon dozens of wmaller flocks returning from their days foraging come together in a massive cloud, forming swirling, diving patterns across the sky. They twist and turn, changing directions at a moments notice. Eventually, they noisily settle in their chosen roost which in Geashill is an avenue of conifers, safe from harsh weather and from predators.
So why the dramatic aerial displays? The answer is a simple, survival. There is safety in numbers. The trick is to avoid being on the outside of the group, hence the tight density of the flock as they strive to push towards the centre. No starling wants to be the first to land as that makes it vulnerable to attack by a kestrel, falcon or other bird of prey.These massive numbers of birds concentrated over Geashill would suggest that there is no shortage of starlings. Numbers have however crashed by over 40% in the UK and similarly across Europe with Ireland one of their last strongholds. Bill Odie the BBC Wildlife presenter when asked for his greatest ever wildlife experience, rated a murmuration of starlings as his number one, ahead even of seeing tigers in India.
Yes they can pepper your car as they soar overhead, but it’s a small price to pay for one of the greatest wildlife shows on earth…right here in Geashill.
Ireland has about 180 varieties of Hoverfly. They are a very beneficial insect, pollinating much of our food sources. They like to dress up and behave like wasps or bees, but tis all a bluff, just to make them seem tough, because hoverflies simply can’t sting, not one of the 180 varieties.
The large one pictured here enjoying a poppy in geashill is called Eupeodes Latifas. Very few hoverflies have easy to remember names! It’s little buddy Episyrphus Balteatus is an exception to this rule being called the “Marmalade Fly” It’s a true gardener’s friend as its larvae devour greenfly.
Watch for them next Summer as they hover in mid air for a few seconds, dart forwards for a metre or two, and hover again. These and many other insects are attracted to the garden by a plot of wildflowers just 2 metres squared.
If you want to attract lots of butterflies to your garden or patio its hard to beat a Buddleia or “Butterfly Bush”. They come in lots of sizes and colours, though the darker colours seem to work best. Pictured above, we have a Peacock and a smaller Tortoiseshell enjoying a Geashill garden.
The unusual bird pictured above has been visting bird tables in Geashill since Spring 2013. No it isn’t a new or exotic bird species. It’s a male blackbird but one with a white head. It isn’t an albino as its mainly black. The condition is known as Leucism which means it has lost its pigment in some of its feathers. They are quite rare with fewer than 50 turning up in Britain in any one year out of a population of just under 10 million. Leucistic blackbirds may not survive as long as their black brethren as it is believed that their white markings make them more vulnerable to predators, but our fella seems to be doing just fine!
Plant some Irish wildflower seeds this Spring and you will have wonderful displays of colour while improving the biodiversity of your garden. Check out www.wildflowers.ie