Starling Spectacular

Across the length and breadth of the UK, between October and March, you have the chance to see what is surely one of nature’s most magnificent sights: a ‘murmuration’ of starlings. Tens, or perhaps even hundreds of thousands of birds, all swooping and diving and looping across the dusk sky before settling down to roost for the night.

Starling Spectacular

Why starlings do this isn’t completely understood, but it is believed that by grouping together in large numbers they hope to bamboozle their predators and make it difficult for them to target individual birds. The shapes created by this aerial display are simply spectacular, all the more so if a predator appears and the murmuration takes evasive action, spiralling around the sky like a living, breathing organism in its own right.

You might think that starlings are nothing special, but I challenge you to say that after you’ve watched a murmuration. We saw one amazing gathering purely by chance as we pulled into Tebay motorway services last November: the need for refreshment was completely forgotten as we stood and gaped at the birds. It was over in minutes, and if we had not arrived precisely at the time we did, we would have missed it. Such displays used to be commonplace over big cities, but changes in farming and land use mean their overall numbers have plummeted by 80 per cent and you’re now more likely to see them in rural areas.

One of the best places to see them in the South-West is the Avalon Marshes in the Somerset Levels and a fortnight ago we determined to go and see for ourselves. There are a myriad viewing areas but the ‘Starling Hotline’ will tell you which is likely to offer the best vantage point for viewing that evening. We ended up at the RSPB Ham Wall reserve near Meare.

When we arrived, it looked like any other marshy bird reserve but, as dusk approached, the starling began to gather in the sky overhead. They wheeled and turned around the sky, their numbers expanding all the time, and then, as dusk grew near, they began to colonize the reed beds. Soon the reed beds were black with starlings. Birds took off as new birds arrived, recycling themselves, and moving in unison like a swarm of locusts. They made a remarkable amount of noise, not just with their cries but with the rhythmic beating of their wings. The whole spectacle was incredible: the boys were transfixed.

The RSPB website has details of the best locations for viewing murmurations. There’s almost sure to be something near you, so don’t miss out on one of nature’s finest spectacles!

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About the Author

Helen & Ian

Helen & Ian

About Me & Mine

Hi there! Helen and Ian here from the Oxfordshire-Wiltshire border! We have two boys who love everything in the Great Outdoors (especially sticks), and a border collie who also loves everything in the Great Outdoors (especially tennis balls). We also have a toddler daughter who is fiercely independent and proving to be just as intrepid as her brothers.

Favourite place in the world:

A difficult one... There are so many wonderful places to choose from... But it has to be Sandwood Bay in the far north-west of Scotland which can only be reached by a 4-mile walk. Last time we went it was a full-on winter mountaineering experience (with ice axe and crampons!) just to get there. Wild and windswept, it's totally unspoilt.

Favourite things to do outdoors:

Enjoy beaches, woods, and coastal paths; explore waterways in our open canoe; go for a big day out on a small hill; go rock climbing; collect sticks, conkers, and acorns; investigate puddles and rockpools; ride our tandem; fly a kite against a clear blue sky.

Comments (2)

  • Kerry Teague

    Kerry Teague

    13 March 2017 at 22:24 | #

    Aw, those are brilliant photos. I used to love watching the starlings heading underneath the Albert Bridge in Belfast on my way to night class when I was studying for my MSc. More recently, we were treated to a large flock diving into the reeds near Inch Abbey late one Sunday afternoon in autumn whilst we canoed past at dusk. I always feel so privileged to see such sights. The noises were amazing that time, too. It should be on everyone's bucket list to catch at least one murmuration in the flesh. That's a great idea to check out the RSPB site to find the best spots! Thanks, Helen and Ian.


    • Helen and Ian

      Helen and Ian

      14 March 2017 at 19:25 | #

      Hi Kerry! It must have been really cool to see them at Inch Abbey! I saw a picture of it recently and it made me think of Byland Abbey. I didn't have much luck capturing the starlings on camera in the air, but the numbers were enormous. It's a great thing to witness. It made me wonder how many 'ordinary' things we are walking past without noticing them!


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