WITNESS ONE OF THE UK's BEST WILDLIFE SPECTACLES
The sky is black with life, dark specs move overhead like smuts from a bonfire caught on the breeze. All around, the sound of waves…
I am one of many. A quiet crowd lines the gravel pathway between the reed beds at Ham Wall Nature Reserve in Somerset. We’re assembled to witness possibly the greatest wildlife spectacle in Britain; a starling murmuration. A sight so inspiring that birders chase murmurations in much the same way as storm chasers track tornados.
The gathering of people starts about an hour before sunset. The starlings seem to wait for the last of the day's light to head for their roost. When they do arrive, they're greeted with quiet reverence. The first sighting is a wobbling lava lamp blob of a few hundred birds. Like an apparition, it slides in from the nowhere and hovers over the bleached stems below. Then, all of a sudden, as one shape, it slips towards the reeds and only then do the birds break formation and jostle noisily for a spot to bed down. Gradually, as the light dims, more birds arrive, from beyond the waters that lie at my back. And as water they come. The air directly above me becomes a never-ending river of birds. Wide and constant, as if the dam has burst. The bespeckled sky, like the chest of a starling, a million wings beat.
Around half a million starlings are flying overhead.
I stand looking up for so long that my neck aches. I suddenly remember to close my mouth – a necessary precaution when standing beneath the busy flight path of so many birds.
Everyone talks about the spectacle of a murmuration. But with so many birds moving the air, it is the sound that I notice. It is the noise of the sea at night. Swells that lap the beach in the dark. Every twist and turn of the whole creates another breaking wave. It’s soothing and it mesmerises the crowd who stand gripping smartphones and binoculars below; others stoop behind tripods bearing expensive cameras or 'scopes, each desperate to capture the moment.
With the sky this dense with movement, it’s hard to accept that the mass above is made up of birds, each smaller than a blackbird, their shapes appear as a singular living creature, breathing in and out, reshaping, moulding around some unseen hand.
Some birds form a dense cloud and a murmuration takes place. Not the dramatic aerial ballet which a predator might stir, but a calming left surge, then a right, each bird reacting instinctively to its neighbour. There is safety in numbers and they move like sardines in a shoal.
More birds arrive from the East and these come as a narrow stream, funneling down into the reeds. I don’t know how long I stand here, time is stolen, but on they come until the cool winter sun melts into a warm orange puddle on the horizon.
As the last light fades, it gets really cold. Standing still amongst the marshes the January air is bitter and warm clothing is vital. But cold weather is good for murmurations, as the birds mass together in their thousands, creating a heat index that helps to conserve vital energy.
The sheer number of birds is something I wasn’t expecting. The reeds now look as black as peat. Hardly a stem remains visible. The roost is so condensed, that suddenly, after much arguing about who has the best spot, a black rainbow rises in one sinuous, flowing arc, as birds give way and relocate to fresh reed bed, over a hedge to the left.
I’ve just seen more birds in half an hour than I’ve ever seen, making it hard to accept that starlings are on the red list of endangered birds.
But these birds who sleep in the Avalon marshes are not all ‘ours’. Many have flown here from Northern Europe for the winter, swelling the numbers temporarily. There may be a lot of them here but nationally starling numbers have nose-dived. Their population falling by 66% since the 1970s, with numbers crashing so dramatically that scientists are worried about their future. So, whilst they’re here, it would be rude not to admire their performance.
Where can you see a murmuration?
I went to the RSPB Nature Reserve at Ham Wall, where reputedly the largest gathering of starlings in the UK choose to roost. It's a good place to start.
Here are my top starling spots:
Ham Wall, Somerset.
Strumpshaw Fen, Norfolk.
West Pier Brighton, Sussex.
Leighton Moss, Lancashire.
Westhay National Nature Reserve, Somerset.
Fen Drayton Lakes, Cambridgeshire.
Gretna Green, Dumfries and Galloway.