One amazing, wildlife spectacle is a starling murmuration. I have only ever seen a few bunches here and there. In my local park a small flock gathered flying around the lake, they didn’t do many acrobatics but I just loved watching them. I also went to a more well known starling roost at Fen Drayton in Cambridgeshire a few years ago. There weren’t peak numbers when I visited but the small flock was still beautiful to watch. In all fairness though I felt I had only seen a starling ‘murm’ so after careful planning I set off to see the full blown ‘murmuration’.
I found myself at RSPB Ham Wall in Somerset on a winters’ day in December last year. I had travelled over an hour from where I was staying to see these beauties. I had already checked with the starling hotline, yes there really is such a thing, which confirmed the starlings were roosting at Ham Wall. The spectacle is supposed to start around dusk but getting there earlier meant that I could have a romp around the reserve first. The expanse of reedbed was huge, and I soon became immersed in watching a marsh harrier, but still no starlings in sight. That was ok though it wasn’t late enough yet. The difficult part was deciding which part of the reserve to go to watch the starlings as you don’t want to miss them. There were supposed to be hundreds of thousands of starlings that roost here so I wasn’t worried (well maybe a little), we would see them. Conveniently though there happened to be a guided tour walking in front of us. I often tend to bump into these guided walks that I didn’t know were occurring, so I have developed a good technique of latching onto them and listening in. The guide said the starlings were showing well at the platform yesterday so the tour would return here at the end of the walk. Great, so I didn’t need to worry about running around like a headless chicken, or in this case a lost starling, so I just sat on the conveniently placed bench and went back to relaxingly birdwatching. There was a variety of waterfowl out on the water and a great white egret in the distance. After a while the chatty excitement of the tour could be heard approaching and we soon became a gaggle of expectant visitors waiting for the starlings. There was the gamble of which side of the platform to sit because they could appear in front or behind, so we took our chance and waited.
They first appeared in the distance a long way away, just a faint greyness to the sky. Looking through the binoculars though you could see hundreds just in one view, if only they would come closer. They soon did and there were hundreds of thousands in different groups circling around us in the distance, so it didn’t matter which bench we sat on, not that we were sitting anymore we were all leaping about in excitement. Then one group of starlings flew right over our heads and they quickly started to descend into the reedbeds very close by. We all scurried along the path to watch them, and they would be drifting above and then just fall to the reeds. The noise was incredible, and there was definitely some squabbling about which part of the reed they got. But still the spectacle kept going, there were a few more drifting patterns in the distance, then a group came unexpectedly over our heads and sort of floated there. I was completely in awe of their beauty, every day to day worry was gone and it was just me and the starlings, so I gaped in wonder. Then I had a sudden realisation that I should probably close my mouth as with a greater than usual number of birds above your head the probability of getting deposited upon is larger than usual. I suppose it would have added to the experience, aerial puffin poo has hit me in the face before so it wouldn’t have been much different. Anyway back to the starlings. Flocks continued to drop down to the gathering in the reeds. The reedbeds were no longer a warm brown but black with starlings, still flitting about communicating with one another. Watching them until the darkness made it difficult, although the birds could still be heard, was a real privilege, and it is definitely one of the most amazing spectacles there is. The problem was I wanted to see them again the next day. From plucky characterful birds alone or in small groups, they are also incredibly beautiful and breathtaking in huge flocks – definitely one of my favourite birds.
Starling flocks are huge in winter as migrant birds arrive from Europe. The large flocks and acrobatic displays give the birds safety in numbers and warmth when they roost together. They do move roost sites however and there isn’t one at Ham Wall currently but instead they have moved along to Shapwick Heath. For information about the roosts in this area call the Avalon Marshes Hotline – 07866 554142 (told you there was a starling hotline). Or visit my previous article about places to see autumn spectacles.