Shapeshifters

My final ‘starling watch’ of the season looked like it was going to be a rather underwhelming one despite an almost perfect golden sunset. Numbers were still impressive but certainly down from the previous weeks and the starlings flew unhurriedly, swirling slowly around the pier until they began to drop from the sky into the roost beneath after just a few minutes. As the sky cleared that looked to be the end of the night’s spectacle, or rather lack of…

With the starlings already settling down on the pier railings, I too thought about heading for home. That was until quite suddenly and without warning, the flock’s behaviour changed and the starlings burst into the air in an ominous black cloud.

Bursting into action
Leaving the pier
Chaos and confusion
Taking to the skies in immense numbers


This reaction could only mean one thing, a predator in their midst! It took a little searching but eventually I spotted the unmistakable silhouette of a bird of prey (almost certainly sparrowhawk), darting among the smaller figures of the now panicked starlings.

A sparrowhawk creating a tunnel through the panicking starlings as they tried to avoid capture


Then commenced 15 minutes or so of the most beautiful and breathtaking murmurations I have witnessed, and I am delighted to have also captured just some of these moments on camera. Even so they do not do the remarkable scene justice, such murmurations really do have to be experienced in the flesh to be truly appreciated.

I wish I had been able to capture all of this in frame!
Sparrowhawk incoming! ( bottom left)
Stragglers trying to keep pace with the main murmuration


The harassment from the bird of prey pushed the flock higher and higher into the sky where unfortunately much of the colour from the setting sun was lost and I was having to juggle the camera almost vertically to keep on photographing. Fortunately I had opted to use my telephoto lens today so I was able to keep track of the attack and capture a tighter view of the hunt which would have been entirely lost with a shorter focal range.

A sparrowhawk sillouetted against the much smaller starlings
Ambush!
Swooping in from below
Missed!
The gap between life and death just a wingbeat
Sparrowhawk vs starlings
Caught in the pinkish glow of sunset
A speedy dive
Another near miss
Who’s chasing who?
Swooping in


Even at the maximum 300mm zoom length, at times the sparrowhawk became little more than a tiny dot beside an impenetrable wall of starlings. I do though quite like these images as they demonstrate the great scale of the flock, and huge challenge faced by any bird of prey brave enough to tackle them.

Facing an immense challenge, an almost impenetrable wall of thousands
Retreat
Just part of the immense flock
.
.
Parting the flock
.
A breakaway group left vulnerable
.
A near miss
.
Another lucky escape for a starling


The starlings flew in rapid and unpredictable patterns to evade the pursuing sparrowhawk and keep the flock flying in tight formation, ensuring no bird is left isolated and vulnerable to attack. These synchronised displays are thought to aid in escape but also confuse and intimidate a predator, and it’s easy to see why!

Mini murmurations
Shapeshifting
The split


More often than not such aerial hunts are unsuccessful, and despite a few narrow escapes this was no exception. The starlings’ immense display of strength in numbers eventually had the desired effect and the sparrowhawk left in search of an easier meal elsewhere. 

Safety in numbers

The starlings continued to ‘dance’ in the final rays of sunset, unwilling to return to the roost until they were certain the threat had passed. Eventually calm returned to the flock and they began to slowly drift downwards and take up their iron perches beneath the pier.

Drifting downwards
.
Making shapes
Dancing in the orange glow of sunset
Fading glow
.
Returning the the roost

More like this


All photographs copyright of Claire Stott/Grey Feather Photography © 2021
www.greyfeatherphotography.com

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. Amazing! I would love to see this. I can imagine the sheer noise up close!

    Like

  2. Reblogged this on GOD in my garden and commented:
    Amazing bird photography by a Welsh blogger, Aberystwyth.

    Like

    1. Claire Stott says:

      Thank you for sharing!

      Liked by 1 person

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