Conservation Manager, Stuart Benn kicks of 2013 with a must-see wildlife spectacle
Starlings by the Bucketload
Happy New Year!
What’s on your bucket list? You know, those things that you would really, really like to see or do before your time is up. I’ve still got plenty that are on there but I ticked one off over the Xmas break – experiencing a big starling roost. Gretna is well known for staging Vegas-style weddings but it now has another claim to fame –the biggest gathering of starlings in Scotland. But it’s not that handy for us here in the north as it’s as far away from Inverness as Brussels is from London. Anyway, we were down near Glasgow before New Year which got us a bit closer so that was the opportunity.
You would think that finding thousands of starlings would be easy but a trawl on the internet suggested that the birds don’t always roost in the same place and some people had come away empty-handed so we needed more accurate info. A quick ask in the Service Station directed us the couple of miles to the trees behind the Gretna Gateway Outlet Village. Unless you’re in need of some serious retail therapy, this is perhaps not the most alluring of spots but, as of December 2012, if you were a starling looking for a safe place to roost with some company, it was the place to be!
Finding a good vantage point wasn’t so easy – we could see the surrounding country stretching off to the English border and the starlings massing on the pylons and wires before heading off in flocks to the town but we kept losing them behind houses. After a bit of trial and error, we reckoned the best place was just up the road from the GGOV – a bit of a restricted view but the action was happening right above our heads.
Animals flock for lots of reasons but two of them are as anti-predator devices. If you are one bird amongst thousands then the chances of you being the individual that is picked out are tiny. But big swirling flocks are also confusing to predators as they find it very hard to focus on just a single. I’d always been slightly dubious about this one but that was exactly our experience – it was impossible to take in the view, no sooner had you fixed on what they were doing than the flock had moved on to a new place a new shape. I can’t describe what it looked like – images of flames flickering in a fire, surf surging round rocks or ink drops in water give some idea but maybe it goes beyond description – it all happens at high speed and in 3D and is simply mesmerising. In the end I just immersed myself in the experience and enjoyed it without trying to give it too much meaning.
They spent ages flying around before they felt secure enough to take cover but, when it came the end was quick, the birds diving from the sky and being sucked into the earth looking for all the world like a tornado working in reverse. Then, all was quiet until we slowly reconnected with the rest of the world – the cars whizzing by, the lights of Gretna, all of which we’d been oblivious to as the show exploded above us.
**Starlings are just one of the many birds to look out for during the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch. To register and find out more visit www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch
In his regular blog, Conservation manager Stuart Benn provides a behind the scenes look at his recent brush with fame.
One of the things I really like about my job is that you never quite know what is going to come up next.
The day had started as planned – a wee trip east of Inverness to meet up with Ian, my counterpart in Aberdeen. But, rather than sit down in an office, we’d arranged to have a chat as we walked around Findhorn Bay. The date had been set weeks ago so it was a real bonus to find it was a stunning winter’s day – crisp, clear and very cold. It was great to talk about what we’re working on and the brilliant views of a flock of Waxwings and a Peregrine hunting pigeons were the icing on a very icy day.
Then at lunchtime I got a phone call from our Edinburgh media team. Winterwatch had been on and wanted someone from the RSPB to take part in the programme that evening - was I up for it? Yes I was, so I called Euan MacIlwraith and got the info. It turned out that it wasn’t the live telly broadcast but the web-based bit after that, Winterwatch Extra. Could I answer any viewers’ questions and talk to Euan about what was happening on the webcams – sounded good!
I was to be on live sometime between 9 and 10 so I made sure that I got to Aigas well before that – dashing in at the last moment wouldn’t be the most restful preparation! I’d worked with Springwatch a few years back so I had some idea of the scale of these operations but it still surprises me just how much is involved in getting these programmes to air. Even in the pitch dark, there seemed to be huge trucks bristling with antennae and aerials everywhere. Inside, there were loads of folk beavering away - producers, directors, webcam operators, researchers, the list did seem to be endless!
I had a bit of time before I was on so I watched the live show from the warmth of one of the lodges and could hear all the off-air communications to the presenters and the countdowns to the clips – all amazingly slick and professional. Soon enough it was my turn and, as I headed off, Chris Packham passed by – much taller than I’d imagined!
I got ushered into what looked like a normal truck from the outside but inside it was a fully set-up TV control room – banks of monitors and screens, wires everywhere and very, very cramped. I squeezed in next to Euan got handed the headphones and we were off!
I think I was on for 40 minutes or so but it passed in a blur – I had no idea what was coming next and, being live, you don’t get a second chance. All a bit nerve-jangling but great fun too! But, all too soon, it was over and, after a wee chat with Euan and the director, I made my way back to the car under the most gorgeous intense starlight.
Who knows what today will bring but I don’t expect it will compete with my unexpected brush with the first Winterwatch ever. I’ll definitely be tuning in again tonight and thinking back to what it was like to be part of it even for just a tiny wee bit!
Test your bird ID skills ahead of the Big Garden Birdwatch (January 26-27).
What’s that Bird?
There is just one week to go until the World’s largest wildlife survey. So to prepare you for the big day and celebrate the start of Big Schools Birdwatch on Monday, we’ve prepared a few short quizzes designed to test your bird knowledge.
The Big Garden Birdwatch is open to everyone regardless of age, knowledge or experience. It’s a fun and easy way to learn more about the wildlife in your garden or local park, whilst at the same time contributing to an important piece of citizen science.
To take part all you need is a pen, paper, an ID sheet or book (if needed) and one hour over the 26th and 27th Jan to count and record the highest number of each bird species you see at any one time, rather than adding them up throughout the hour. This means you won’t risk counting the same bird twice.
To find out more or register to take part visit www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch