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01 Sep 2019
Images thanks to Nick Cable.
As the gloom gathers so do the people. Drifting along the track at the water’s edge in twos and threes, they stop every now and then to stare at the horizon. There is something in the air – literally. The apprehension is palpable. ‘Are they coming?’ ‘Are we in the right place?’ Then suddenly it starts. In the distance a cloud appears, moving rapidly towards us, undulating as it comes and revealing its composition of numerous individual black specks. The specks are starlings and soon the sound is as awesome as the sight. Thousands upon thousands of pairs of wings make a rushing noise as they swoop in from all directions and the clamour of chattering birds as they start to settle in the reed beds for the night rises to a crescendo. This is the natural phenomenon known as a murmuration and the Avalon Marshes complex in Somerset is widely agreed to be one of the best places in the UK to see it.
As nature’s spine-tinglers go I would say this is up there with the’ bait ball’ of fish I have seen on TV, the turtle egg-laying I’ve watched first hand and the Northern Lights which I have yet to see. Like these other spectacles, the starling murmurations are unpredictable but perhaps that makes it all the more special when they do happen and at least there is some helpful advice to improve your chances. The RSPB, one of the partners at Avalon Marshes, has the Ham Wall Reserve and there is a starling hotline you can ring (07866 554142) to find out where the birds have been roosting recently. When I first moved to Somerset, before the advent of the internet and widespread mobile phone usage, it seemed you had to be initiated by a local or a birder to have a chance of sharing this amazing sight and I failed on my first attempt. I arrived too late with no idea where I was going and only in time to see the last wave of birds brush past a hide and fall straight down into the reeds. So much has changed since then and the good news is there is plenty to do if you arrive well before the stars of the show are due. Such is the great work that the partners have done here that the reserve can claim to be the nation’s hot spot for long legged waders. You can see Egret, Bittern, Glossy Ibis and even Night Heron. There are plenty of superb smaller birds to spot while you wait such as Kingfishers, Goldcrests and Treecreepers. Gliding majestically overhead are the Marsh Harriers. It is the mix of this last species with the Starlings that make for the real magic of the murmurations. The patterns the starlings form when they sweep in are fascinating enough in ideal conditions but when a hunting falcon is on the scene, that is when they turn themselves into weird and wonderful shapes - twisting and turning as one to confuse and outwit their predators.
I mention conditions as it is worth remembering, when planning a visit, that the birds perform best when the weather is dry, bright and still. An added bonus is that there will often be a sunset on days like this, providing a dramatic backdrop to the aerial ballet. The flocks are at their largest in December and January and can run to the hundreds of thousands of birds. The irony of this is that as a species, the Starling is on the red list with numbers in sharp decline across Europe which makes the habitat Avalon Marshes provide all the more important.
Perhaps the best way to see the starlings is to book onto one of the organised events on the reserves and then you have the benefit of a guide to take you to the right place and help you spot anything interesting along the way. It should be said the mass ascent in the mornings can be pretty impressive if you are not averse to getting up with the dawn.
So where do these vast numbers of starlings come from and why? Some are our own birds who stay here all year and they are joined by others from elsewhere in Europe seeking warmer climes. When they congregate on the marshes, they have probably flown in from a radius of 20 miles having spent the day foraging. It’s said the murmurations are a way of signalling to others where they are planning to overnight and it is certainly remarkable how they all appear from every direction proving there is safety and warmth in numbers.
For more on the Starling Spectacular check www.rspb.org.uk or www.visitsomerset.co.uk
Find out more here on Bird Watching
By Vicky Banham
As the gloom gathers so do the people. Drifting along the track at the water’s edge in twos and threes, they stop every now and then to stare at the horizon...