Sunday, January 01, 2006

Puzzling Astoria Bird Swarm

Yesterday afternoon I went to meet some out-of-town friends at the Ship Inn on the Astoria riverfront for a few pre-New Year's toddies. We sat in the bar area, but as we were leaving, they wanted to go into the dining room to see the view of the Columbia River, which is breath-taking.

Just as we arrived at the window, the air over the river suddenly filled with birds. The flock kept assuming different shapes while they moved ... sometimes they would resemble a swarm of bees, sometimes they would reshape into a comma; the patterns were intricate and varied all the time. In the course of re-forming, they would fly about 100 feet east, do a swooping reverse, then fly about 100 feet west, and repeat the east-west route over and over again. They dove down towards the surface of the river, then up into the air, all the while swirling and creating new formations.

Meanwhile, every 30 seconds or so, a clump of hundred or more birds would appear from nowhere, seemingly, and join right in with whatever pattern the others were forming at the time. Soon there were thousands of birds performing complicated aerial acrobatics over the river. Gulls appeared every now and then, but flew over or under the starlings, as if they didn't want to interrupt them. One of the customers in the dining room said the birds were starlings.

The starlings were not feeding; they appeared to be playing. I went outside to observe this phenomenon up close, and was struck by the fact that the birds were silent. The only noise was the beating of their wings. By then, several people were lined up on the riverwalk railing watching the bird-play. I kept wondering why the starlings were doing this, and couldn't help but get a little shiver thinking about that old Hitchcock movie, "The Birds," even though the starlings were completely oblivious to us.

As soon as the birds somehow knew the last group had joined them, several of them dove straight for the pilings under the senior condo building next to the Ship Inn. It took several minutes for them to keep re-forming, and diving in groups, to get under the building.

Finally, the air was clear, and all of the starlings had somehow made it under the building, where they roosted on the supports under the building. The screeching and squawking echoed against the water, and bounced off the cement subflooring. It made a hell of a racket, and I couldn't help but think the residents on the first floor must have felt like they were roasting in avian hell.

That's two strange phenomenon in two days. I can't help but wonder what's next!

Astoria Photografpix

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