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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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All photographs copyright of Claire Stott/Grey Feather Photography © 2021