Murmurations of starlings certainly are a sight to behold

IN Timoleague, west Cork, where the famous 13th century abbey overlooks the sea, there may be seen, these evenings, one of the most extraordinary displays of coordination and swarm behaviour in nature, a murmuration of starlings, says Damien Enright.

Starlings flying and swooping before the sun goes down in what is known as a murmuration. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA

The birds, some ten thousand in number, arrive west of, and above, the village in small flocks that coalesce to form a single giant flock sweeping across the sky in shape-shifting patterns, now rising into the void in a moving pillar tall and broad as Nelson’s column, now compressing into a barge broad as a container ship sailing the sky, now flattening into a pancake half a kilometre long and half a kilometre wide.

A dedicated local birder, Peter Wolstenholme, standing on a bare patch of ground, found himself engulfed in birds rocketing past him and around him, the lower strata of the dense flock inches only above knee level.

I have seen murmurations funnelling between city rooftops darkening the streets beneath like night, but never one enveloping a human being.

For a birder, it must have been a lifetime experience, a minute man amongst 20,000 wings.

It was Peter who, on the Sunday afternoon, first noticed the black ball of birds high above the village.

On the Monday, starting at around 4pm, bunches of hundreds flew in from every compass point, cruised unhurriedly and then — as if on a signal or impulse at a given moment —rushed together, disappearing into a black hole in the sky, the expanding flock which then, in turn, transformed into a vast Graf Zeppelin, then into a giant corkscrew, then into 100 Rorschach mirror-images, then coagulated into a rugby ball of birds, big as a cathedral, flying across the west Cork sky.

On Tuesday, an even greater number gathered, as if their sky-borne smoke-signals —they sometimes rise like wisps of smoke — had been seen across the curve of the earth, and they’d come to join in. The starling millions that come here in winter fly from Scandinavia, Poland, and Russia.

Perhaps from the stratosphere they see the Timoleague smoke-signals, and the murmuration is, in fact, a vast welcoming celebration where they race, dance and shape-shift across the Irish sky, spreading like a huge amoeba or a gobbet of ink dropped on vellum before all but touching wingtips and plunging into their forest roosts to sleep. I hope the spectacle will still be there 30 minutes before dark next Monday for readers to enjoy.

See on the internet: www.thatsfarming.com/videos/video-natural-wonder-cork Meanwhile, I hasten to explain that the mention of my name by Fergus Finlay on the Marian Finucane programme on Sunday, November 19, as author of an article he disliked (“... this daft thing by Damien Enright ...”), was a slip of the tongue.

The article was written in The Journal by junior housing minister Damien English.

Unfortunately, we’re both Damiens. Until my teenage years, despite living all over Ireland, I met only one other Damien.

Now Damiens are everywhere, good luck to them.

However, I assure readers that I share none of the sentiments toward media’s “negative narrative” of homelessness as perceived by Mr English. Unfortunately, the error associated my name with an elite, going back to CJ Haughey, which Mr Finlay, a fellow Irish Examiner columnist, argued shows arrogant disregard for the homeless. I abhor such arrogance and disregard.

For the last week, I’ve been reading, with great fascination, a very keepable book called Dublin Bay: Nature and History. The chapters on the birds were the first to absorb me, but I then became hooked by the records of the fish and fishermen, the marine life and coastal environment, the bay foragers like Molly Malone, the first settlers, the maps and the building of the city, the literary heritage, Gogarty, Joyce, the Martello Tower and Sandymount Strand.

I read by whim, and out of order. I found no chapter less than interesting, enjoyable and worthwhile.

I have no strong connection with Dublin Bay, although as a boy at a college on its shores, Booterstown Marsh, now a nature reserve, was a favourite haunt on the rare days when I got an exeat. I loved the bay’s vastness. At night, the lights twinkling on faraway Howth Head, seen through a dormitory window, engendered dreams of escape and travel.

The book is published by Collins Press at €24.99. It’s a substantial, 309 page, dust-jacketed hardback, copiously indexed and referenced, lavishly illustrated with a mix of photos, lithographs, sketches and paintings (which, alone, will fascinate) plus graphs and charts for the scientifically inclined.

The writing, by Richard Nairn, David Jeffrey and Rob Goodbody is the key, plus the high production values, a Collins hallmark.


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