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Ford and Etal

Northumberland wildlife in December: Hibernations and murmurations!

Other posts by  |  Kevin OHara on Google+ |  December 4, 2012 | 0 Comments
Starlings at sunset

Starlings at sunset

As I started writing this article I probably saw more rain last weekend than I have ever seen in my entire life, it’s been wetter than an otter’s pocket. Let just hope that the otters can cope with this amount of water. I have no doubt they will as wildlife is better at coping than we give it credit for.

As temperatures now also start to plummet, one sure-fire way of coping in the animal kingdom, or in my household for that matter, is to sleep through it. There are surprisingly few animals that adopt this technique, as it has its drawbacks as well as its advantages. But that’s the ‘Darwinian’ point of it all – it’s the ‘survival of the fittest’ or ‘fattest’ to be more accurate.

The countryside is changing at an alarming rate and I make no bones about my anger.  I am old enough now to have seen the majority of changes in our countryside; a recent report points out, that the UK has lost 44 million birds since England last won the World Cup (1966 for all non-football officianados).

 The reasons behind this are not ‘rocket science’ and neither are the answers – it’s simple! getting the policy makers to switch their focus. If these floods tell us anything, it is that it is time to stop building houses in unsuitable places which seems to be en-vogue again at the minute.

Anyway, I detract from the issues of coping with winter and harsh conditions; wildlife has many adaptions to help it cope with such situations. By the end of November, temperatures are usually low enough for bats, dormice, hedgehogs not forgetting over- wintering butterflies and other bugs, to have all gone into a complete torpor – a state where the heartbeat vaguely registers and body temperature hovers just above freezing. They will not rise again until outside temperatures start to rise in the spring – a condition which is fraught with its own dangers, as we can experience early springs or warm ‘snaps’ in the middle of winter, however, generally the process works so why interfere?  Leave animals alone if you find them out on your travels.

Many more mobile species just ‘up-sticks’ and head for warmer climes or gang up for warmth, as witnessed when I was a lad when millions of starling would overwinter in huge flocks in towns, on the bridge structures on tall buildings and in the parks. All those are gone now … part of the lost 44 million, at least that’s what I thought until I was treated to a mesmerising display a week or so ago. Whilst I am often treated to a slight murmur close to where I live, a full murmuration is a sight to behold; I last saw one in Rome a few Christmases ago. This one was slightly closer to home and is gaining in reputation and strength every day.

What is a murmuration? I hear you ask, well it’s the collective name for a flock of starlings, a true murmuration is where there are thousands and thousands wheeling and turning in their dusk display flight before settling into their winter roost; I personally call the few hundred or so near me just a murmur but when I was driving south from a trip to Glasgow, I got to Gretna and was stopped in my tracks by the full awe-inspiring scene above the lights of the service station. I pulled into them to take in the full scenario, a scene that even my errant 14 year old son found ‘awesome’ and … ‘cool’.

Over one million starlings wheeling, twisting, turning, jousting in just jaw dropping beauty unfolding in the Solway sunset. Swelled by European immigrants, this well-known roosting location has swelled this year to over a million individuals and will be on show until the end of February when all will depart to their breeding locations.

whale starlings over gretna

Whale starlings over Gretna

Watching these, I was not alone as many people were gazing skywards, jaws agape as the birds wheeled over head with a deafening swish of synchronised wings and then, as if by magic, like the flick of a switch, they descend to their chosen roost. There is an increase in vocalisations as they catch up with the gossip before huddling together for warmth and security for the night – then a silence descends over scene as the last embers of the day sink into the west.

It was a pleasant surprise to be told that you needn’t travel that far as there is a slightly smaller murmuring in Druridge Bay too, so if you can’t make the trip to Gretna, then have a look at Druridge Bay, an hour or so before dark.

I can’t promise a million but there are a few thousand doing their stuff over the reed beds and it’s still worth the trip as the Bay can be stunning in winter with large flocks of winter wildfowl plus hunting owls and raptors making an appearance. Surely worth a couple of hours on a cold wintry day.  Go on, wrap up warm, pack your flask and head to the coast and witness the wonders of nature.

I’ll be back in January 2013 when we are in deepest darkest coldest days and wildlife has to do all it can to survive.  If you get a chance and have a few £’s spare before Christmas, please support Northumberland Wildlife Trust’s Big Give Christmas Challenge – 6th, 7th and 8th December.  Log on at for more info.

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Category: Northumbria Wildlife

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