More Than a Murmur

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions

Early evening, just before dusk, is a magical time for starlings – and is when the UK’s most spellbinding spectacles dominate the skies.

Swirling, whirling flocks of starlings gather to perform an aerial dance of sublime synchronicity: a jaw-dropping vision that echoes the intensity of the gradual deepening of the skies, from yellow to orange to an inky red. Forming beautifully choreographed curvaceous twists across darkening clouds, like plumes of sooty smoke, the starlings surge upwards and downwards in a hypnotic trance-like state.

Autumn roosts usually begin to form in November, though this varies from site to site and some can begin as early as September. More and more birds will flock together as the weeks go on, and the number of starlings in a roost can swell to around 100,000 in some places. Thousands of migrant birds, visiting from Europe for Britain’s milder Atlantic climate, bolster numbers. It is all about safety in numbers with murmurations a collective joining for forces that ensures starlings can head to a communal night-time shelter in large, self-protecting flocks. Each bird strives to fly as close to its neighbours as possible, instantly copying any changes in speed or direction to create a ripple-effect in unison.

This year murmurating clouds are already numbering many thousands of birds –up to a million is possible. It is mesmerizing to watch the flocks grow and grow before taking to the skies in rolling waves in one of the UK’s most incredible natural spectacles.

Despite the incredible size of the flocks, these numbers are just a fraction of what they used to be. Loss of natural habitat due to an increased use of farm chemicals has seen the starling population crash by over 70 per cent in recent years, meaning they are now on the critical list of UK birds most at risk. Today some of the best chances of seeing murmurations are on RSPB reserves – large numbers of birds choose to roost in Lancashire, Somerset, Cambridgeshire, Cornwall, Wales and Norfolk for safe, night-time shelter well away from predators, street lights and noise.

Flocks are unpredictable and can move around from year-to-year, but huge gatherings are on show this winter at the following RSPB reserves.

Ham Wall, Glastonbury, Somerset. Tel: 01458 860494 ,
These peaceful wetlands are a safe home for many rare species including water voles and otters with bitterns seen regularly all year round. A great spot to enjoy starling murmurations.

Leighton Moss, Carnforth, Lancashire. Tel: 01524 701601,
Scenic splendour abounds at the largest reedbed in north-west England, which is home to some really special birds such as breeding bitterns, bearded tits and marsh harriers – and the location for BBC Autumnwatch. An amazing location for starling murmurations.

Marazion Marsh, Penzance, Cornwall. Tel: 01736 360624.
This reserve overlooks the beautiful St Michael’s Mount and boasts Cornwall’s largest reedbed. More than 250 bird, 500 plant, 500 insect and 18 mammal species have been recorded here and bitterns are now regular winter visitors. Superb place for starling murmurations.

Fen Drayton, St Ives, Cambridgeshire. Tel: 01954 233260.

starling roost at Fen Drayton

This complex of lakes and traditional riverside meadows next to the River Great Ouse is a fantastic place to explore and watch birds with huge numbers of ducks, swans and geese on the lakes in winter – and a great murmuration hotspot.

Titchwell Marsh, Hunstanton, Norfolk. Tel: 01485 210779.
Set on the picturesque north Norfolk coast, this reserve offers a rewarding walk down to a sandy beach past reedbeds and shallow teeming with up to 20 species of wading birds and lots of ducks and geese in winter. Expect starling murmurations from early November.

a roost over the Severn estuary

Newport Wetlands, Wales. Tel: 01633 636363.
A haven for wildlife on the edge of the city, this pioneering reserve is home to Cetti’s warblers and bearded tits with ducks, geese and swans visiting in large numbers during the winter. Enjoy spectacular views of the Severn estuary all year round – an incredible backdrop for starling murmurations.

Image 1 © David Kjaer

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