I am sure many of you have been aware that during Autumnwatch, the starlings that usually grace the skies at Leighton Moss every year didn’t make the spectacular arrival we were hoping for. Since then many of our visitors have been enquiring into their whereabouts, as you are all very keen to see the fabulous murmurations that have become so synonymous with autumn at Leighton Moss....
The exciting news is that numbers have started to rise here at last. We have around the forty thousand mark at the moment, with more arriving every day, so hopefully numbers will increase further in the run up to Christmas. At the moment, views are best from Grisedale hide about half an hour before dusk, but they do move around a lot. For more up to date information check with the welcome desk team on the day of your arrival.
Starlings clearly love Leighton Moss (Paul Richardson)
I often get asked why starlings flock in this way and where the word ‘mumuration’ comes from, so I thought it was the perfect topic to explore in this week's 50th anniversary blog. The swell in starling numbers that we experience throughout the country in October/November time is due to the birds migrating across from places like Scandinavia to spend the colder months in the UK. Here at Leighton Moss they are usually here until the New Year, but in very cold winters they have been known to stay until March, which happens in other parts of the country too, such as our Ham Wall reserve on the Somerset Levels. This year, there has been a lot in the press about autumn being late, due to mild weather and this was no doubt a contributing factor to the late arrival of our starlings (either that or they were camera shy).
'Mumuration' is the term used to describe the behaviour of starlings flocking together in this manner, dancing across the sky in incredible shapes as they look for the best place to roost at dusk. It is all to do with safety in numbers (similar to shoaling fish). The more of you there are, the less chance you have of being eaten. Being in a huge mass, swirling round the sky is confusing to predators such as sparrowhawks, peregrines or marsh harriers that may get among them. If they do, it keeps the starlings whirling round for ages. The word ‘murmuration’ itself comes from the murmuring sound that all those thousands of wings make as they beat simultaneously. If you are ever stood underneath them whilst they are doing this, it is an incredible experience as you really do hear a whoosh of wings - just remember to put your hood up and close your mouth as it can rain with starling poo!
Another popular question is why do they not crash into one another? Well it is to do with their reaction times. Starlings can react to each others movement in less than 100 milliseconds (as opposed to the average human reaction time of 215 milliseconds), so they avoid collisions.
Is it a bird, is it a plane, is it a hedgehog? (Neil Bland)
Last year's Autumnwatch (for which the starlings showed up) had the use of a very high quality night vision camera, which allowed us to glimpse into the starling’s world after dark. What was found was very intriguing. We assumed that once they go down into the reedbed to roost, that the starlings are fairly still for the night, but the footage showed that they do actually move around a lot. They roost clinging to the reed stems and swap places and shift around through the night to get warm, as well as changing spots in the reedbed. It was fascinating to see as it is not something we get to witness normally.
A stunning starling (Ged Gill)
When watching these stunning starling displays, it is important to remember that numbers of these special birds are struggling. Sadly we have lost 50 million starlings in the UK since the 1960s. There are likely to be a number of reasons for this including the loss of traditional roosting and nesting sites, the use of pesticides, over-zealous gardening and the recently uncovered research by the University of York into the affect of anti-depressants on them. This issue was highlighted on this year's series of Autumnwatch when Michaela Strachan met up with Dr Kathryn Arnold who has led the research. Dr Arnold's study took her to sewage treatment works, which are a common place for starlings to flock and feed. This led her to look into what was going into the sewage, as many of the drugs taken by humans will pass through our bodies in an unchanged form, ending up in our water courses and in time, into invertebrates. She investigated the amount of anti-depressant found in earthworms at sewage treatment plants and found it to be a tiny amount- around 3-5% of the average human dose.
The study continued by feeding 24 captive starlings with earthworms that had the same concentration of anti-depressant in them. Their behavior was monitored for the following six months and the results were worrying. One major finding was the starling's lost of appetite - compared with control birds who hadn’t had any anti-depressant, they ate much less and snacked throughout the day. Birds have peak feeding times first thing in the morning (to get their energy up from the night) and later in the day (to get them through the night). They will feed throughout the day, but these are important times of frenzied feeding that they need to get through the cold, dark nights. A reduction in their appetite and short bursts of snacking means they are much less likely to survive the night. Dr Arnold's study also found that the starling's desire to mate was much reduced. When introduced to the males, the females were not interested in them which would of course effect breeding.
Further research is due to be carried out in wild starling populations but it does highlight the problem of the amount of pharmaceuticals going into our water and the affect this can have on our wildlife, which could mean that much better filtering systems are required on our sewage plants.
With large issues like this affecting our wildlife, it can seem an impossible task, but there are ways in which we can all help. Putting out suet and mealworms at this time of year helps starlings to get through the cold nights. Some of their favourite food is leatherjackets (the larvae of daddy longlegs), so not spraying your lawn with chemicals can help too. Adding nestboxes to your garden or school provides them with much needed nesting sites. For a variety of ways in which you can help give nature a home, click here.
Birds of a feather flock together (Andrew Holden)
Following a visit to Leighton Moss to see starlings last year, one talented visitor Sarah Clark penned this lovely poem about her experience, which I thought you might like to share. Thanks Sarah!
I’m not a great birder and I can only name a few
It was seeing starlings on the telly which totally changed my view
These birds were coming in to roost and playing in the sky
Formation flying in their thousands, right before my eyes
I was riveted and decided then and there I had to see
A live performance of these birds in close company
Sometime later Dave made my wish come true
Off we went to Leighton Moss just we two
Travelling through fog and rain down the M6
Fearing we’d not see starlings through the thick mist
However we arrived just in time to see a sight
Which was everything I had wished for, as it slipped from day to night
I filmed the scene unfolding with arms over my head
Due to the height of the surrounding reeds in their bed
My camera caught our voices too and I clearly stated
“That’s what I came for Dave” in a voice of one elated
We watched for a while longer until the murmuring was over
Those starlings must love their life, more than any pig in clover
Only rarely do we do something, we have wished for
It was truly brilliant Dave! I couldn’t ask for more