Just east of Rt. 92/28 in Arbovale there is a pine patch – just a few acres – that has been the source of much entertainment this summer. Every evening about 30 minutes before dark the blackbirds begin to arrive in search of a safe roosting spot for the night. Small flocks – probably extended family units of 50 or more birds – arrive and begin to circle, flying in tight-knit unison as they search out the best real estate in the tree tops.
Newcomer flocks arrive and merge with the early birds as they form small, moving clouds of living, breathing, flying birdlife. Dozens become hundreds. Hundreds become maybe thousands. Swirling and twirling in tight masses as they perform what has become their nightly ballet.
And, yet, more birds arrive and join in. Now large undulating throngs stream over the pines, diverging into smaller groups, then converging again into a single huge cloud, continuously turning and flowing in a graceful exhibition of precision seldom seen in the chaos of nature.
Starlings probably make up the largest part of these flocks, but Grackles and Red Winged Blackbirds also nest in these pines and may join in the displays. The “how and why” may be a little harder to explain.
First, how can they fly so closely and turn so precisely to keep together in a tight flock? Is there a leader bird? Do they all make the same decision at the same time? It’s thought that each bird keeps an eye on at least seven other birds to be able to coordinate their turns. But who is in charge of the direction and changes, nobody knows the answer to that.
More importantly, we might ask why do they do this? Murmuration is the term used for this starling activity but it is a type of swarming which is not unusual in the animal world. And keeping tightly bunched together is a good defensive posture. It is harder to get picked off by a predator when in a tight group. Peregrine falcons have been known to follow these starling clouds in search of an easy meal but often give up after not being able to single out or pick off a bird out of the flock.
Besides that, there seems to be a bonding process going on, and the birds just seem to enjoy it. Other creatures employ the swarming technique to assure success during migrations or to defend territories. Bees, ants, locusts, and fish are among that group as well as other types of birds.
This interpretive dance on air continues for 10 to 20 minutes in a seemingly effortless display of artistic fluidity. Gradually, small groups break away and drop down into the trees. White pine tops suddenly bend and sway wildly as if hit by a strong gust of wind, then stabilize and turn still as the birds settle in. The black cloud gets smaller, then all is quiet.
A poet by the name of Paul McCartney summed it up best, “Blackbird fly…into the light of the dark black night….you were only waiting for this moment to be free.”
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The blackbirds share the sky with another, more loose-knit flock of birds at this time of year. Night hawks are beginning to congregate in preparation for their fall migrations to the south. They can often be seen around Labor Day weekend as many will fly in the same direction – just a few hundred feet off the ground – in search of insects which they catch in their short, wide bills. They won’t be in formation or even close together, but they will be easily identified by their long, narrow wings with distinctive white bars and white throats showing underneath. Those falcon like wings and aerodynamic bodies give them excellent flying skills. Numerous aircraft and motorcycles have been named after them.
These are members of the nightjar family, sometimes known as goatsuckers. They are also close relatives to the Whip-poor-wills. Unlike the W-P-W, night hawks will begin feeding in the early evening well before dark. When air pressure is heavy and pushes the insects back toward the ground, nighthawks can be found wheeling, banking and feeding over hay and crop fields at ground level.
So, keep your eyes open and watch the bird world come to life as they prepare for their fall migrations. Keep looking up.
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Fawns are beginning to lose their spots and acorns are beginning to fall. Deer will seem to disappear from the meadows as they spend more time searching for the hard mast. If you have or know of areas of white oak, expect to find them there. In fact all critters love the white oak acorns and that’s where the action will be.
Dave is a retired operator from the GBO and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.