There is something essentially balletic about the movement of many of our birds. Those remarkable murmurations of starlings are a superb example of the magical moments created sometimes by birds in their tens of thousands. Hereabouts, such ballets are in contrast, created by relatively small numbers of what are otherwise, generally regarded as very ordinary birds. That said, looked at as individuals, starlings, despite their commonness, are nevertheless quite striking birds whilst at the same time, in my eyes, they exude in their demeanour, more than a hint of comedy. Their speckled plumage, basically black, also reflects the spectrum of rainbow colours, to add an iridescent quality.
As frequent garden visitors, starlings might well be regarded by most folk as 'nuisance' birds, full of swagger and inclined to bully other visitors. Yet when masses of them get together during the winter months, they provide the most spectacular performances, sweeping across the sky in fluid, ever changing patterns. It cannot be denied that their 'dancing' is nothing short of breathtaking. As reported recently, scientists have deduced that such flocks comprise of groups of leaders on the one hand and followers on the other. Hence the ever-changing shapes they create in the sky! Much the same in ballet in some ways, I suppose, when the lead dancers lead their followers into one gracious movement after another!
There are several similar examples of large numbers of birds navigating their way across the sky in similar mode. Many of them are members of the wader clan and so show off their similarly spectacular formations in the marine environment. For instance, the likes of knot certainly take the breath away with their mass fly-pasts. And just as is the case in those tens of thousands of starlings, there is absolutely no evidence of collisions in spite of their remarkably close formations. Another similarity to the well-rehearsed world of ballet!
Other birds perhaps, whilst also in their everyday behaviour very much prone to dancing in one form or another, are less corporate and so perhaps more reminiscent of solo dancers as opposed to chorus members. For instance, I love watching dippers. They are effervescent birds, seldom still, bobbing up and down on what appear to be spring-loaded legs thus more like the dancing followers of modern pop music. And of course, they spend much of their time in an under water environment so perhaps they are not so much balletic as aquatic in their dancing or indeed swimming.
Strangely enough, dippers despite existing almost entirely in a watery world do not have webbed feet. However, they seem to manage fine without such swimming aids as they search the beds of rivers, burns and lochs for insect larva. In appearance, they resemble oversized wrens with their round, concavely-shaped bodies and short tails. However, they are wonderfully designed birds, their shape enabling them, when they lower their heads, to literally walk on the beds of such rivers and stay firmly ensconced there despite the rushing water which in fact because of their posture, actually presses them down, virtually anchoring them to the bed. When they want to return to the surface, they simply lift their heads and pop up to the surface like corks.
Wagtails are also birds of ceaseless movement. However, wagtails, despite their nomenclature, do not in fact wag their tails so much as flick them up and down. I well remember someone asking me why they wagged their tails. It could be that they are advertising their presence to other wagtails, perhaps as a means of establishing dominance or a pecking order.
Some suggest that the constant tail flicking is a gesture of sheer brazen defiance. In other words this constant movement indicates to potential predators, "Here I am, ever alert, so you are not going to catch me!" Another suggestion supposes that the constant tail flicking is designed to flush out insect prey. The frequency of pumping the tail up and down does seem to increase when the wagtails come together socially but surprisingly, the 'catch me if you can' signal to predators seems to find most favour among scientists. Maybe they are just naturally, extremely rhythmic birds! All three of our native wagtails, the familiar, clown faced pied wagtail, the grey wagtail with its muted yellow body colouring and the much rarer but vivid yellow wagtail, constantly flick their tails up and down like this.
There are a number of birds which bob up and down in their courtship dances and whilst enjoying my recent expedition to the marine environment, I was constantly aware of the presence of those excellently camouflaged birds, sandpipers, on nearby beaches. They were in general heard rather than seen, their almost plaintiff, whispering but quite high-pitched calling notes, 'twee-wee-wee' always evident. Closer inspection revealed their presence on quite stony beaches where their superbly camouflaged plumage enables them literally to melt beautifully into the background. From flickering and gliding flight out over and very close to the water. They land a few yards further on along the shore, to soon take off again and return from whence they came or move a few yards farther on.
These are of course, migrants, which usually arrive in April both on the seashores of the north and west and indeed on many an island riverbank and loch shore too. This, I believe, is proving to be an exceptional year for migrant birds in line with the previously mentioned extremely populous warblers of various kinds. Like most of the other summer visitors, sandpipers, travel here from Africa and it must be assumed that the weather conditions in transit have this time around, been extremely benign. And when they arrive, they too join the dancing classes! Sandpipers are habitually, quite low-flying birds but when they arrive in the spring, the male birds become more ambitious, establishing territorial integrity by performing a soaring aerial dance, which culminates on a descent on stiff but quivering wings.
The female will join him in this dance before he pursues her in a short, frantic chase. The pair augment their aerial dance with little trills of musical accompaniment, before he now begins a rhythmic little head bobbing display. Sandpipers are thus one of those 'bobbing dancers' and indeed also bob up and down when looking for food! They are definitely birds that 'bob up and down like this'! Sandpipers are about the size of starlings yet despite their lack of stature they certainly clock up huge mileages during their migratory journeys. They are exceptionally widely distributed, being found right round the globe, migrating from Australia to Asia, from South to North America and from Africa to Europe.
The sound and rhythms associated with sandpipers are reflected in a series of curious colloquial names, ranging from 'waterypleeps' in Orkney, 'killicleepsie' on Scotland's east coast and 'dickie-di-dee' down in Lancashire. In the Stirling area, it was popularly known as 'the skittery deacon'! Older readers may recall sandpipers of a different but very musical sort in the sixties. "Try to remember ..."!