Starling murmurations return to Belfast city skyline

A natural phenomenon that had been squeezed out of a city skyline has returned after environmentalists persuaded the authorities to make a few simple tweaks.

For years, Belfast residents and visitors to the city had been enjoying a starling murmuration at a 120-year-old bridge spanning the River Lagan.

Thousands of birds gathered in the area every night putting on a display of co-ordinated flight before swooping to roost under the Victorian era bridge.

They gather in large numbers for protection as they bed down for the night.

But a couple of years ago, wildlife experts realised that the birds had abandoned the roost and they set about trying to work out why.

Conor McKinney, chair of the group Wild Belfast, said it appeared that a number of developments along the riverfront and specifically new lighting that had gone in around and along the bridge had contributed to the abandonment.

The group began to liaise with a number of agencies, including the Roads Service, Stormont’s Department of Communities and local landlords, to see if they could get it changed.

“What we found was that in 2021 there was a catastrophic decline in the number of birds,” Mr McKinney said.

“A murmuration that once numbered in the thousands was down to dozens.”

Starlings fly around Belfast’s Albert Bridge

He said the only obvious cause was a huge increase in light pollution linked to new LED lights on the bridge and lighting at surrounding developments.

After consultation blackout panels were put on the river facing side of the new road lights, some of the lighting at public spaces next to the bridge was turned off and lights which had been attached to the spans of the bridge at river level, was either turned down or had red filters attached.

Even then the group was not sure if the measures would have the desired affect.

“We weren’t sure if they were going to return,” Mr McKinney said.

“When we were speaking to the various landlords we were saying to them, look it’s a fifty fifty call on whether these birds come back, but we said to them `as long as there are birds in the sky then there’s hope that they will return`.”

And in recent weeks their efforts have begun to pay off.

The starlings have begun to return in increasing numbers. When we visited at dusk on Friday we were treated to a display by thousands of starlings returning to their roost.

For Mr McKinney and his group it is evidence that mankind can make space for nature with a few simple changes.

“We have a massive sense of pride,” he said.

“To be able to say that what has been a natural phenomenon for the people of Belfast has actually returned to the bridge.

“It’s something that makes me kind of emotional as well, because we’ve seen people watching it, taking photos of it, talking about it on social media and rejoicing in the fact that its back.

“The fact that people are taking such joy in the natural world is very gratifying to me.”

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