A recent visit to the Marlowes theatre in Canterbury proved that it doesn't matter where you go there`s always a chance encounter with the natural world. It was a matinee performance and during the break I took a stroll along the top-deck walkway complete with plate-glass windows offering panoramic views over the city centre.
The cold, still winters day had delivered a blood-red sunset and in the western sky the planet Venus twinkled brightly as a precursor to the star show that would surely follow. And then, on the edge of my vision, I caught sight of a black, swirling mass of what at first appeared to be a `swarm of insects` moving as one over the city scape of juxtaposed modern office blocks and ancient cathedral spires.
Closer and closer they came in the darkening skies, like smoke in a gale, the flock pushed this way and that, bulging and shrinking, rotating at great speed in an apparent random fashion. Or maybe it was a carefully choreographed unit - if so, who was in the ever-changing vanguard?
As a thousand Starlings passed over the theatre roof I imagined I could hear the rush and twitter of the murmuration, a sight and sound I had witnessed many times before in the field. A few other theatre goers had also noticed the impromptu performance. Soon a small throng had assembled, ice-cream pots in hand, pointing skywards and marvelling at the intricacies of the plasma cloud as it careered across the heavens before plunging down to roost for the night on window ledges and buttresses.
These avian theatrics are not, of course, for our pleasure but a distraction technique against predators such as Peregrine and Sparrowhawk; a classic example of safety in numbers. Other benefits of mob roosting in town centres, where the overnight temperature is often a degree or two higher than in the countryside, are that sheltered and sturdy roosting platforms are ideal for tightly packed individuals to share body warmth and communication.
By past standards this gathering wasn`t particularly large and formerly would have involved tens of thousands of birds, such has been the decline in Starling numbers during the past quarter of a century, for reasons not yet fully understood.
On the way back to my seat I pondered on this crepuscular aerial ballet - were the Starlings local birds or migrants from further afield, and how far had they flown from their feeding grounds to roost on the `cliffs and crags` of Canterbury`s buildings? But in the end, with queries unanswered, I simply marvelled at an unexpected fifteen minute interlude with one of winters great acts of natural theatre; a Starling murmuration in full flow.
Since bumping into the Canterbury murmuration there has been a similar size gathering over Folkestone town centre. Thanks to Dave Featherbe for sending through the above pic.
For further updates and pics refer to the superb, and recently redesigned website, Folkestone and Hythe Birds and other Natural History. www.freewebs.com/folkestonebirds