In his latest instalment of Blackpool Social Club’s series on lockdown nature and our interaction with it, Stephen Dunstan casts his eyes skywards to the one show that always goes on.
“See the artistry of nature displayed for your delectation and delight! Take your seats for the greatest show in town! Never the same performance two nights running! A miraculous demonstration of timing and synchronisation in such numbers as to take your breath away! Watch these masters of the air as they perform their mysterious dance only inches from disaster!”
So says the circus ringmaster on North Pier at the start of local author Robert Lock’s fourth novel. The daring aerobics aren’t credited to Blackpool’s still-furloughed human performers, however. Rather, his book, Murmuration, captures many of the reasons why Blackpool’s roosting starlings have become so greatly appreciated by locals and visitors alike. Some people visit the town particularly to observe the North Pier Starlings, maybe not in huge numbers but enough for the BBC and others to call them a tourist attraction. But was it always thus?
In a world where many things are increasing in scale there is some irony in the fact that our roosting starlings are increasingly appreciated as they have become progressively less of a spectacle. The numbers coming to winter under North Pier are progressively dropping, and the local Fylde breeding population has also dipped due to factors including reduced insect levels and increasing amounts of paving, decking and artificial grass in our towns and villages. Starling numbers in Britain have dropped by a third since the 1970s, so much so that they are now on the ‘Red List’ as a bird of high conservation concern.
So why are the murmurations seemingly more appreciated than they ever were, including the ones on our piers and at Marton Mere. What follows are some personal reflections.
The reduced numbers mean that the impressive aerial show is less of an issue in terms of guano than it used to be. There are other bird species which have attracted the ire of Joe Public and deflected potential negative attention from the starlings and ‘flying rat’ is now common parlance in the town and elsewhere for two vastly contrasting species – feral pigeons and herring gulls. Meanwhile being locked down has encouraged us to take a greater interest in the natural world around us; throughout this long winter we haven’t had the bird song of spring and accessible wildlife experiences are fewer.
It has been interesting to see an increasing number of local photographers taking inspiration from the North Pier murmuration during the lockdown. This isn’t completely new. Many established Fylde photographers have done film and video work on the dusk spectacular over the years and experienced nature photographers have also obtained excellent shots (see for example the website of Yannick Dixon and in lockdown the work of Russell Howarth)*. This year though has seen greater scale in the observation, if not the performance. It seems that with our metaphorical wings clipped, taking in such liberated manoeuvres is more popular than ever before.
In the second article in this series about garden birds, I pointed out that a swarm of Starlings suddenly descending on your garden feeders can feel invasive and aggressive. They act like they own the place, eat all the scraps and then scarper often having intimidated the more amiable species that were enthralling you up to that point. Hopefully the header image, taken by me in my own garden this month, will enable any sceptics to see that Starlings themselves are a thing of beauty. If not I am sure we can all agree that collectively, at least, they are, for a period each evening, a sum even greater than the parts.
See more images of Blackpool murmurations:
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