Flocks of starlings, known as murmurations, are one of winter’s most impressive shows and be seen across the province; They can involve hundreds of thousands of starlings gathering noisily together at dusk and sweeping across the sky in a huge dark cloud of synchronised flight.
Watching thousands of starlings move across the sky as one is such an unforgettable and truly inspiring experience. It starts with just small groups of birds that gradually join together and become one swarming mass twisting and turning overhead, before plunging down into their roosting spot to settle down for the night.
There are some great spots in Northern Ireland to see this spectacle, with the Albert Bridge in Belfast city and Legananny, near Castledawson in Co. Down being two particularly good ones. You can also catch them gathering at the Broadway roundabout in Belfast on the "Rise" statue before they head off to roost under the Albert Bridge - can you spot them in the picture below?
Each year the starling numbers are boosted by starlings arriving from continental Europe to spend the winter here, and it is these large numbers of birds that create such an impressive spectacle. But, there is evidence of a decline in the number of starlings visiting the UK in winter, and this could be linked to the birds’ decline elsewhere in Europe. Figures show that some 40 million starlings have disappeared from the European Union, including the UK, since 1980.
The thing is, we don’t quite know why these murmurations happen, so the University of Gloucestershire is asking us all to record sightings over the winter to start solving the mystery. By filling in a very simple form, you can help track murmurations right across the UK.
Starlings are also one of the birds we ask you to look out for each year in our Big Garden Birdwatch, which is coming up in January. This also helps us track where these birds are, and ultimately, helps us stop their declines.
After letting us in on the secret world of odonates not so long ago, trainee ecologist Anne Guichard is back with exciting news from Portmore Lough...
Studying bryophytes is hard work and usually involves collecting low-level specimens in the field and requires a lot of time to identify them in the office, especially for a beginner! I collected some specimens on Monday 27th October at Portmore Lough as part of a module in my course. I had trouble to identify one of the specimens so I sent it to my mentor John O’Reilly who determined it to be Hygroamblystegium humile, a small pleurocarpous moss, and later confirmed by Tom Blockeel (BBS referee for this group of mosses).
It’s pretty exciting news as the last accepted record in Northern Ireland was in 1951 in Lough Neagh at Loughshore Park (source Rare and Threatened Bryophytes of Ireland, Lockhart et al. 2012). The status of Hygroamblystegium humile or Constricted Feather-moss in Ireland is endangered but the lack of records can partly be explained by the fact that this small moss is easily overlooked growing in lowland wetland usually intermixed with other plants.
I’m still waiting patiently to see my first redwing of the year – that unmistakable flash of colour in flight, as well as a creamy stripe above the eye, makes this charming visitor to our shores easily recognisable.
Redwings journey here in significant numbers from both Iceland and north-east Europe. They are found anywhere there is a supply of food and have a particular liking for berry bushes such as hawthorn, rowan and cotoneaster as well as juicy earthworms! They are very social birds and are often seen in large flocks with other thrushes like fieldfares and blackbirds.
You’re most likely to spot them in the hedges of open countryside or grassy fields but they’ll also venture into parks and gardens if food is scarce.
These colourful migrants arrive from September onwards, but the greatest influx is during October and November so I’m confident of spotting one yet! Even if you don’t manage to see one, you might hear their clear, thin whistle at night as they maintain contact with one another as they fly to their final winter destination.
In the UK the redwing is red-listed because of the small declining breeding population centred in the Highlands of Scotland. However the species has never bred in Northern Ireland – although an attempt was recorded in County Kerry in 1951.
Come March these visitors will take flight back to more northerly climes to breed. Redwings raise their young in cup-like nests made of grasses, twigs and mud and a typical clutch has around five or six green spotted eggs.
After an incubation period of two weeks, the young take another fortnight to fledge and then the parents lay start all over again with another brood!
Photo credit: Mark Hamilton