Life

Take on Nature: Murmuration makes for a surreal gathering in the Nobber sky

A murmuration in the skies above Nobber in Co Meath

I WENT to Nobber to see a murmuration last weekend. OK, so that opening probably needs to be elaborated on.

Nobber, is a small town in Co Meath, close to the Cavan border, whose most famous son was the blind Irish harper Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738). However, this year it has become famous for the surreal sight of hundreds of thousands of starlings coming home to roost in a cluster of trees just outside the town – an event known by bird enthusiasts as a murmuration.

Such events are not unique; crowds have been gathering over the past few months on the Albert Bridge in Belfast to see an equally impressive gathering.

It is believed that this flocking together during the winter months before roosting for the night is a social activity during which starlings regroup after a day out foraging. While starlings will pair off in the spring to mate and nest their brood, the mass gatherings can also provide warmth and protection during the cold weather.

On a Saturday evening in Nobber, my ‘Nordie'-registered car was parked on the roadside beside registrations from a dozen counties, including Dublin and Kerry and even a left-hand-drive car with Spanish plates.

There was a human murmuration as groups of people gathered on the roadside, some taking off back towards the town as the first starlings gathered overhead.

However, those in the know stayed put, keeping their places for the best views of the roost where the starlings are spending the night.

Before long those who had scuttled off after the birds were hurrying back. Before long, wave upon wave of birds came together overhead – long, oblong, fish-shaped flocks swimming across the sky to merge with one another and create an even bigger bubble.

It was a psychedelic experience watching the shapes form and evolve overhead, sometimes becoming so dense that the sky behind them was obliterated.

“It's like the end of the world,” shouted out one child as she watched the aerobatics.

And still they came, groups of just a few dozen flowed inwards alongside groups of ten thousand to coalesce into ever-shifting black clouds, constantly merging and growing.

Some scientists believe that if the universe was created by a big bang, from which all matter emerged from a miniscule singularity, it will end in a big crunch in which the billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars, will be pulled back together and crushed by its mind-boggling mass into a singularity once again.

The murmuration was like the big crunch, galaxies of starlings drifting across the sky towards one another to swirl and merge.

Sometimes the cloud would fracture, as if the telepathic signal between the mass of starlings was broken and they split apart into uncoordinated chaos, but a link would be reestablished and they would be drawn back in sequence.

Where there a million birds there? I don't know. More than 100,000 anyway. It was one of the wonders of nature seeing such a massive swarm of individual birds doing the equivalent of synchronised swimming.

Was one of them leading? A captain starling, going OK folks, let's hang a left, swoop in over that hill there and then shimmy back towards the river… ready, one, two, three… gooooooooooo.

Sometimes, the murmuration took on the distinctive shape of a huge whale swimming across the sky, next it was like tornado, a black funnel gyrating overhead.

From high above, the murmuration was coming closer and closer to a copse of pine trees, the black cloud becoming tighter until, with breathtaking suddenness, it plunged into the woodland as if sucked into a black hole.

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