Shorebirds take flight

Early one evening just as the sun was setting, we spied a large flock of Long-billed Dowitchers resting on the shore of a large inland lake in Laguna Vista, Texas.

Long-billed Dowitchers

Long-billed Dowitchers resting in the shallows, bill tucked under one wing, all facing the same direction.

A photographer can only creep up so far on these birds before they take flight, swarming around in a huge circle, checking out the dangers below them, before settling back on the shore again.

Long-billed Dowitchers

They all take off simultaneously, flying closely together, turning as one massive body.

The striking thing about whole-flock flights like this is that huge numbers of individuals seem to swarm with organized intent, moving uniformly in the same direction as they whirl, change altitude and direction, and eventually land again.  This phenomenon has been well-studied in several species of birds and is most often associated with predator detection and avoidance.  How do birds do it?

Long-billed Dowitchers

It might not look like it, but there is rather uniform spacing between birds in the large flock, and always open space in front of them.

To make flock flight work, each bird pays attention to 6-7 of its neighbors, following their movements closely, and making quick adjustments when a neighbor changes direction.  This type of mass movement has been likened to performing “the wave” in the stands at a football match, but may be happening much more quickly than that.

Murmurations of Starlings have stunned observers and impressed many a videographer, as flocks of hundreds of thousands of birds form ever-changing patterns prior to descending into their nocturnal roosts in urban locations.  The video below illustrates this well, as a peregrine falcon hunts for its evening meal within an enormous flock of Starlings in Rome. (John Downer Productions)

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