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Coming home to roost

PUBLISHED: 12:43 10 March 2015 | UPDATED: 12:43 10 March 2015

Starlings Sturnus vulgaris, gathering above reed bed at Ham Wall RSPB reserve, winter roost, patterns seen were caused by predator Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus

Starlings Sturnus vulgaris, gathering above reed bed at Ham Wall RSPB reserve, winter roost, patterns seen were caused by predator Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus

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Aggie Rothon is in awe of a murmuration - the spectacle created by thousands of starlings on the wing

StarlingStarling

I spent a chilly afternoon last weekend standing in the middle of a park watching my son roll up and down ramps on his skateboard.

He loved it and was all absorbed, throwing his coat to the floor and racing off across the frost nipped concrete. I, on the other hand, felt the cold a little more and stood wondering how long I could give it before I had satisfactorily ‘done my time’.

Luckily, I soon discovered that watching the goings-on in the park offered far more entertainment than I had initially realised.

When we first arrived I noticed a group of 10 or 20 common gulls standing in a shallow dip on the football pitch. They were soon joined by a small band of starlings, who landed among the gulls, chattering and parading in their stiff-legged way. Over the next 20 minutes or so, more and more starlings arrived, one after the other, to join the growing crowd on the pitch until the gulls were buoys bobbing on a black sea of starlings.

Starlings Sturnus vulgaris, gathering above reed bed at Ham Wall RSPB reserve which was being used as their winter roostStarlings Sturnus vulgaris, gathering above reed bed at Ham Wall RSPB reserve which was being used as their winter roost

The noise was magnificent, each starling adding its own whistle and flute to the orchestra of hundreds of birds. One by one the gulls took off and drifted away from the starlings’ din – the chattering seemingly too much for them.

This appeared to stir the restless starlings to further action and soon they took off together, flying with rapid beats of their tiny wings to the skeleton rafters of an old barn.

Up on their perches the birds continued to talk to one another, some shifting position time and again to find the perfect place in the crowd. By now, my son’s interest in the birds had been sparked and we stood and wondered how many birds were filling the barn. Five hundred? Eight hundred, a thousand even?

See it now

If you haven’t seen a murmuration of starlings this winter now is the time to get out there and find one. Soon these winter flocks will disperse as, come spring, the starlings go on to find mates, breed and then moult in preparation for the autumn. They’re adaptable birds, so you’re just as likely to find a starling roost in towns and cities as you are in the countryside. Look at cathedrals, churches or other large buildings that offer gaps for roosting, and watch out for murmurations of the birds swirling over the streets like clouds of drifting smoke.

If you fancy a trip out somewhere special the RSPB’s Minsmere nature reserve is the perfect place for a starling roost.

With sweeping reedbeds and wide skies, Minsmere offers starlings plenty of space to gather and dance together before pouring down into the crackling reeds for the night. At the height of the murmurations up to 40,000 starlings will sweep over the reserve patterning the sky with their aerial manoeuvring. They are fickle creatures though, and will relocate frequently. While large flocks of starlings spend some weeks at Minsmere they also use the reedbeds at North Warren. The RSPB reserve at Snape is also a popular spot for starling flocks.

So, keep an eye to the sky this month or you might be out of luck until next winter. Dusk and dawn are the best times to go searching, when the wheezy warbling and whistling of a group of the birds is a tell-tale sign that a murmuration might be on the cards. Alternatively, give Minsmere a call on 01728 648281 for up to date information on local starling flocks. You can also visit the website – www.rspb.org.uk/reserves

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