Posted 22nd Dec 2017
As winter takes over and dusk falls, you could be forgiven for feeling there's no better place to be than tucked up warm at home, with your feet up and the fire on
However, during the winter months, there will be large numbers of starlings who visit Britain from the continent, seeking out the relative warmth of our island climate. As the afternoon wears on, the feeding flocks out in the fields gather together, before setting off for their communal roosts.
They're usually found in reedbeds or sometimes in a dense patch of evergreen trees, these roost sites can prove to be the overnight home for tens, even hundreds of thousands of birds. Their arrival at the roost proves to be one of the most staggering things you can expect to see all year.
Flock after flock after flock of starlings arrive, coming in from all number of directions to gather together in the skies. As the numbers build, with some of the finest 'murmurations' (the name for a flying flock of starlings) reaching into the tens and hundreds of thousands of individuals, the flocks take on a life of their own, swirling back and forth overhead. No one wants to be the first to land, as predators could be about. Indeed, there will be - these large flocks attract hunting sparrowhawks and even peregrines, who are eager to pick a meal from the flock.
The ever growing numbers, together with the occasion pass by a hunting raptor, leading to the flocks and making amazing shapes in the sky, packing close together and then expanding out - one flock merges into another, zooming back and forth in ever more complex and beautiful patterns.
It's like the game of finding pictures in the clouds, only faster.
Then, just as the numbers reach their peak and the last of the light fades, as if by a secret signal, the birds will suddenly decide the time is right and funnel down into the reeds. One last whoosh of wings, an electric chatter, and that's your lot. Show's over, the birds settle down to sleep and it's time for you to head home.
How to do it
Wrap up warm - incredibly warm. It can be surprisingly chilly standing waiting by a wintry reedbed, but it will be worth it. Arrive at least half an hour before the sun goes down, probably a bit earlier, and then find a good vantage point from which you can see the roost site but most particularly, where you can see the sky above. Once you've had your fill of oohs and aahs, and the last bird has dropped in to go to sleep, you can go back to the warm fire and cosy home.
If you can't get to the special places listed below
You don't need to be in the countryside to experience a murmuration, one of the most sensational roosts taking place over the Brighton seafront, where starlings roost under the pier. Alternatively, just google 'starling murmuration' and you'll find you're not alone in being entranced by the polymorphous swirl of roosting starlings.
Although situated in the heart of urban Teesside if you visit Tees Valley Wildlife Trust’s Portrack Marsh at dusk in winter there is a chance you might see the marvellous sight of hundreds of starlings going to roost in the reed beds. Walk along the river and you may see the flocks coming in from all directions swirling and turning before they land in the reeds.
Cheshire, Marbury Reedbed
Devon, Exe Reedbeds
Lincolnshire, Far Ings
Nottinghamshire, Idle Valley
Northumberland, East Chevington
Suffolk, Redgrave and Lopham Fen
And even if your local doesn’t have a big starling roost on one of their reserves, they can probably advise you on the best places to look locally.
Image courtesy of Jamie Hall - text and information courtesy of The Wildlife Trusts