It had been one of those rare, luminous, late autumn days when the air seemed to be filled with light, accentuating even minor features within the landscape. By late afternoon, though, the light was fading and as I walked downhill from the car park towards the beach, colour gradually leached from my surroundings. The path was lined by scrubby bushes, increasingly dark and uninviting, although a few small birds still flitted between clumps of vegetation. Ahead, above the steely grey-blue sea, the sun hung low in the southwestern sky, its bright yellow light filtered and diffused through a veil of grey cloud.
The track levelled out and I passed some other people, two women and two men. One of the women stopped me.
‘Are you here for the starlings? ‘
‘Yes, hopefully. And you?’ I replied.
‘My friend saw their murmuration here last Friday,’ she added, but her male companion interrupted, ‘There’s no guarantee they will be here.’ he warned. ‘You may be disappointed.’
I thanked them and made my way on to the shingle beach, its pea-sized pebbles making for awkward walking. I stood with my back to the sea looking across Burton Mere, the narrow lake and reed bed that fills the space between the rear of the beach and the rough rising grassland. Only then did I notice more people, perhaps a dozen, also waiting on the beach like pilgrims at a shrine.
This is Cogden Beach, part of Chesil Beach the massive shingle bank that extends for about 18 miles along the west Dorset coast. It is a unique place, one that I have come to love, a place of sea and sky, of shingle and sand where I can feel at one with nature. In bad weather, Cogden can be forbidding and when a strong south-westerly blows, huge waves pound the beach in a fearsome fervour of spray and sound giving the air a salty taste. But this day there was little wind and the sea had just a gentle swell. Despite this, there was still a narrow fringe of white water marking the border between land and sea and a low roar dominated the soundscape of my visit.
Dotted about the shingle beach, I noticed what looked like discarded scraps of scrunched-up newspaper. These were collapsed, shrivelled leaves of the sea kale which grows prolifically here in spring and early summer, carpeting the shingle with its fleshy blue-green leaves and sprays of white flowers. Now, in the first weeks of November, these images were just memories and under this crepuscular light, the shingle and the plant remnants took on a monochrome, post-apocalyptic look. Only the reeds of Burton Mere showed colour, the setting sun lending them an orange-brown glow.
I waited, patiently and hopefully, for the starlings to appear. I kept an eye on the setting sun behind me and with sunset about ten minutes away its bright disc began to approach the horizon spreading orange light across the sky. Suddenly, a group of birds appeared from the north over the hills that fringe this part of the coast. There were perhaps a hundred or so in a compact flock, and it felt like a good omen. As this group flew across to the east, another group about the same size rose from the reed bed in front of me and followed the first flock of birds. These were signals that I failed to read; I had my gaze fixed on the hills to the north, expecting more arrivals.
Then I noticed the other people on the beach looking to the east where a large mass of birds, rather indistinct and little more than a puff of smoke at this distance, was moving about in the pale sky. Gradually they came in my direction eventually appearing high overhead in the form of a long mobile cylinder consisting, I estimated, of thousands of birds. Looking up I could see some of the three-dimensional structure of the group and the individual birds adjusting their relative positions as the mass moved. I watched, transfixed as the murmuration of starlings tracked back and forth above me flexing like a superorganism resembling a gigantic sky-bound caterpillar that occasionally raised its head or twitched its tail. The behaviour of the birds seemed deliberate, unhurried, as if they were enjoying the moment, relishing the camaraderie.
This stately display continued for almost ten minutes. The sun had by now dropped below the horizon leaving remnants of colour at the border between sky and sea and orange-pink fingerprints on the clouds. The flock moved eastwards again and the tempo changed. The mass of starlings seemed to coalesce, darkening as the birds approached one another, and the behaviour of the group picked up speed. The flock moved more quickly, twisting and thickening, dividing and reforming, sculpting mobile transient shapes in the pale sky, all in quick succession.
Then, suddenly and without warning, the group moved towards me, descending rapidly to disappear into the reed bed as if a sudden storm of hail had fallen only to melt as it reached the ground. The starlings were roosting, some noise rose from the reeds mostly muffled by the sound of the waves. It was now nearly dark and for me as well as the starlings the afternoon’s events were over but as I stumbled across the shingle and made my way up the hill to the car after this wonderful encounter, images of the birds stayed with me.
Every starling murmuration I’ve witnessed at Cogden Beach has been different, but each has been an intense experience of the wild, a privilege to observe but something I shall never fully understand. These late autumn starling displays have also become, for me, part of the seasonal rituals of Cogden Beach, along with the flowering of the beach plants in late spring, the heat shimmering from the pebbles in high summer and the storms that pound the beach in winter.
As I drove away, I replayed the murmuration in my mind and couldn’t help marvelling at how the birds move without collisions and without injury in such a large group. It seems that each bird in the flock monitors the movements of six or seven neighbours and adjusts its own flight accordingly. The birds react very quickly so that information propagates across a flock rapidly if, for example, a predator attacks one side of the group.
Although this goes some way to explaining how starlings fly in flocks, it does not address why they do this. It certainly isn’t for our benefit. Flocking could be a means of recruiting starlings as a prelude to roosting in a large group which might be better for warmth especially in cold weather. Roosting in a group could also allow information exchange between these gregarious birds, starling gossip. Moving about in a large flock might also lower the risk for individual birds from predator attack on a probability basis. A team at the University of Gloucestershire analysed several thousand murmurations reported by community observers and found evidence for the third idea that the displays form to help protect the starlings from predators.
Flocking may reduce the risk of predator attack for individual birds but why then do the flocks perform these displays for prolonged periods of time, as if advertising their presence? It isn’t clear but I can’t help feeling when I watch the displays that these beautiful, intelligent birds are simply expressing the joy they experience in flying.
And yet, starlings are not universally loved. Some view them as noisy, thuggish and dirty creatures: bird-feeder bullies soiling urban spaces where they roost and agricultural pests gorging on seed from newly sown crops or from animal feed.
But whatever your opinion of the birds, starlings in the UK are in trouble. Over the past 25 years, more than half their population has been lost, the starling has been red-listed and is now of high conservation concern. The causes of this decline are still being investigated but changes in farming practice are a likely candidate leading to reductions in the number of invertebrates that young starlings depend on for food. Starlings are dying of starvation and other farmland birds such as tree sparrows, yellowhammers and turtle doves have also been badly affected.
Agriculture needs to adjust to accommodate wildlife in order to halt this downward spiral before we lose these beautiful, intelligent birds altogether. If we do not act, the late autumn murmurations of starlings at Cogden Beach will become no more than memories and part of the very essence of the place will be lost.
I watched this murmuration at Cogden Beach on November 9th 2022
Philip Strange is a writer, scientist and naturalist who lives in south Devon. His writing has been published in Dark Mountain, Land Lines, Resurgence and Ecologist Magazine, The Canary and The Clearing.
He may be found searching for unusual plants on Chesil Beach, or looking for rare bees by the south west coast path, or chasing up a story about science in everyday life in the west country. Read his blog here.
Photo by the author.