Sunday, 7 February 2016

A trip to Brighton, with a mesmerising murmuration!

A starling murmuration is always a fascinating sight to see, and I was lucky enough on my trip to Brighton to see one at dusk from the pier. The wind was howling, the skies were grey, and the sea was whipping up an angry and salty mist into the air, and I didn’t want to leave as these birds danced in the sky in perfect unison. I also could not help but wonder how these birds coordinated themselves so well. Luckily, I have since found that a group of scientists has managed to provide us with part of the answer.
A Black and White of the Brighton Beach looking from the new pier
A colour picture of the beach at Brighton
A Starling murmuration is a swarm of Starlings that forms at dawn and dusk, as a mass of thousands of birds swoop through the skies. The best time to view these swarms are between November and March, all across the UK. Although piers such as the one at Brighton are particularly good for viewing Starling murmurations, they can also be seen over wetlands and farmlands, so almost anyone could be lucky enough to see one. It is simply a case of being in the right place at the right time.
A black and white of the murmuration, looking from the new pier towards the old pier in the distance
There are many theories behind the existence of these murmurations, ranging from predator defence, to maintenance of warmth, to the development of information exchange. It is well known that animals will group in large numbers as a form of predator defence, and creating these mesmerising illusions of fluidity could confuse dangerous predators such as peregrine falcons, or short eared owls. Animals are also known to gather to decrease heat loss, and to exchange information between individuals. At the moment information is being gathered on Starlings all over the country, but data is not complete enough to fully understand what is going on.
The Starling murmuration powered by the winds created by the crashing waves in the sea
The murmuration, echoing the movement of the waves
While the reason behind the Starling murmurations is not fully understood, recent research has given a fascinating insight into who coordinates the movement of these flocks. A study amazingly managed to develop a tracking algorithm to reconstruct three-dimensional trajectories of each of the individuals in the flock during a turning event. This allowed the researchers to analyse the indivitdual change in movement of each starling as the turns of the murmuration were occurring. From this, it was found that the birds on the outside initiated the steering of the entire flock. With this kind of technology that can be used to analyse Starling murmuration movement, it may only be a few years until we may understand the evolutionary reasoning behind this beautiful phenomena.

While the murmurations really were breathtaking, I can't take a trip to the beach without acknowledging the Herring Gulls that of course were in a great abundance. While they are seen as quite a nuissance by many, I find them really quite entertaining. Its great to be able to get so close to them, and meant I had a great opportunity to get some bird close-ups. Of course I may have had a very different view on the beggars if I had a sandwich in my hand I am sure! 
A juvenile Herring Gull who was sitting on Brighton Pier

An adult Herring Gull, with its mature plumage
A Herring Gull going for a stroll next to the pier, keeping an eye out for lunch

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