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Swallow Murmuration

There are some moments in nature that are just too massive to photograph.

On Saturday my dad and I rode over to Cockroach Bay Preserve to witness a swallow murmuration.  Yep, that’s an official word, just like a “chain” of bobolinks or a “murder” of ravens.  A murmuration is a great gathering of swallows that forms a vortex in the sky.  Why do they do it?  Birds find safety in numbers.  A predator like a falcon will find it hard to attack an individual bird when the entire flock moves together in a huge, swirling mass that twists and turns at random.  Then as the birds decide where to roost for the night, they create a tornado-like vortex that suddenly dips to the ground.  It’s incredible.

Tree Swallow Murmuration
Tree Swallow Murmuration – the vortex of birds is in the top right quadrant of the photo.  View larger on 500px.

When we first arrived, we saw a few swallows flying overhead.  Just a few.  They were outnumbered by the cars parked on the side of the road, waiting for the night’s show to begin.  We enjoyed a beautiful sunset at we waited for the birds to take flight.

Sunset with the Swallows
Sunset with the Swallows.  There are a few dozen swallows in this shot, but they are so small that you can’t really see them.

Then suddenly, the birds took to the skies.  Tons of tiny dots. Audubon estimates that there were 5 million birds there!  I gasped as I got my first good view.  It’s a shame there were so many clouds on the horizon. The “cloud” of birds blended in with the actual clouds. I processed these photos in Lightroom and Photoshop much more than usual, trying to bring out the detail in the birds.

Tree Swallow Murmuration
Tree Swallow Murmuration.  View larger on 500px.

In the photo above, the “vortex” settled over the clouds, just under the bright dot that was the planet Venus.  Suddenly a line dropped out of the vortex, and thousands of birds plummeted down.  A few seconds later, another line followed.  Then another.  Then suddenly it was over.  Simply amazing!

My best shots of the night were possibly the videos taken with my iPhone.  I edited a few of them together and increased the playback speed to better show the swirling vortex of birds.

There were a dozen or so other birders there, and we all stood in awe.  It was like watching the Swallow-tailed Kites come out of their roost in the morning – just mind-boggling numbers and amazing action.

This was definitely a wide-angle lens kind of night, and the Beast got kind of lonely.  So I focused him on a small segment of the swarm.  Look at all those birds!  (I added the color in Color Efex, to better the colors of the sunset.)

A Beastly View of the Swallows
A Beastly View of the Swallows

Scientists have studied starling murmurations for years.  They have found that enormous flocks move in this amazing manner because each bird follows the  flight patterns of its seven nearest neighbors.  Multiply that by 5 million birds and wow!  It’s fun to watch the patterns in the birds’ chaos…

If you want to hear more about this migration event, check out this story on ABC News.  A big thanks to Tampa Bay Audubon for sharing the info about this!

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