Migrating Blackbirds

Looking across Horseshoe Reservoir to the mountains south of Ash Meadows NWR

Looking across Horseshoe Reservoir to the mountains south of Ash Meadows NWR

Spectacle:  “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity” or another version says, “chance favors the prepared mine.”  They’re both old bits of sage advice that I find to be mostly true.  I have made numerous trips to Ash Meadows NWR during the past few months with the expectation that I would witness something amazing.  I have experienced moments of serenity, beauty and wonder.  But this recent outing gave me an opportunity to witness one of nature’s spectacles, blackbirds, by the thousands, flocking to roost among the reeds after a long days journey during their fall migration on a late October afternoon.  Brewers Blackbirds and Red-winged Blackbirds arrived from the north in loose bands of dozens at a time for about an hour and a half before sunset.  Their flight behavior displayed no organization at all.  I imagined that they were like a platoon of soldiers after a very long day’s march, a bit bedraggled, with the end in sight no longer concerned about order and decorum.  The birds settled to roost at a small patch of reeds, no larger than an acre or two, around Horseshoe Reservoir.  Although there was plenty of space around other parts of the reservoir, the birds preferred to remain in a tight bunch and managed to make space for the new arrivals.  After an hour, what was at first a quiet patch of reeds on the western edge of the refuge became a noisy acre with volumes approaching a rock concert.  I was seated on a small bluff above the reeds, a few dozen yards back from the edge.  Below, the flock was in a state of chaos, birds were squawking and calling, jumping from one perch to the next.  At some moment the size of the flock reached critical mass and the real spectacle began.  Something spooked the flock, real or imagined I don’t know.  In an instant, chaos exploded into perfect unison as hundreds of birds took flight, flying in a tightly bunched formation and circling the small patch of reeds.  Listen to the audio track posted below, the moments of eruption are clearly audible.  You hear the swoosh of air over wings as they take flight, and strangely, the remains of the flock below become remarkably quiet.  For perhaps 30 minutes, I witnessed this spectacle over and over, that instant when chaos transformed into cooperation and unity.  I don’t know why the flock behaves in this manner, perhaps it’s delirium after a long day.  Then again that’s just me imposing human traits onto wild animals.  I read that a hundred years ago scientist speculated that the individual birds in the flock communicated telepathically, explaining how they could fly in such large formations.  Today, the prevailing theory is that birds have very quick reflexes, and they are simple reacting to the behavior of the six to eight individual birds in their immediate surroundings.  Regardless, witnessing the power and intelligence of the transformation was quite remarkable.

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