Autumn in the Avalon Marshes brings a change as summer greens give way to autumn and winter yellows and browns. The sky also changes as dark clouds begin to form above fields, woodlands and reedbeds. But these are no ordinary clouds, they are huge flocks of starlings on the move; the starling murmurations. They use the reedbeds of the Avalon Marshes as a safe and warm night-time roost. Most of these birds are escaping the cold winter in Eastern Europe, and it is worth remembering that UK breeding starlings have declined by two thirds since the 1970s and are now a ‘red listed’ species of high conservation concern.
Before the birds settle they often come together in huge clouds, wheeling, turning and swooping in unison. This is known as a ‘murmuration’. Birds of prey try to pick off individual starlings often causing the murmuration to pack even tighter and form even more spectacular shapes.
Top tips for any visit are to come on a weekday and avoid the busiest times (which are generally weekends and the Christmas period, when there could be up to a thousand people watching), arrive early, wrap up well, and bring a torch. Please keep social distancing guidelines in mind at all times.
Over the last few years the starlings have mainly roosted on Natural England’s Shapwick Heath reserve or RSPB’s Ham Wall reserve. The way to find out where they roosted the night before is by calling the Starling Hotline on 07866 554142. But be warned! This is where they roosted the night before and no guarantee that will be where they roost the night you visit.
Coming from a distance to see the starling roost? Then we recommend that you check if there is a site closer to home. Check out the starling murmuration/roost map on the Starlings in the UK website to find your closest site.
There are two car parks at ‘Ashcott Corner’ (BA6 9SX) giving access to Ham Wall and Shapwick Heath. Please note that parking charges apply, they both have limited spaces, and you may be turned away once site capacity is reached. RSPB members can park for free at the Ham Wall car park by displaying a valid membership card, holders of a Natural England permit for free at the Shapwick Heath car park, and blue badge holders for free at both. There is also a car park at the Avalon Marshes Centre (BA6 9TT) but this might be a considerable distance from where the starlings roost. At weekends and over Christmas parking can be at a premium so come during the week if you can. Please park responsibly, and not on road verges, in gateways or restrict access for emergency vehicles. Also please note that dogs are not allowed on the main area of Shapwick Heath.
As the weather starts getting colder, the starlings start to arrive. This is usually from early November and they stay until late February / early March, again the weather tends to hold the key to their departure.
The time to see them is just before dusk. It is best to arrive at least an hour before so that you can park, ask around, walk out on to the reserve, watch to see them begin to arrive and hopefully work out where there final roost is going to be (they often pre-roost in the fields and trees around the reedbeds). Dawn can also be a good time to see them as they “come to life” and start to leave.
Want to know what time sunrise and sunset is? Follow this link for times. Remember that dusk and dawn are around 30 minutes before sunset or sunrise and in the evening murmurations can start one hour before sunset so allow plenty of time to arrive and get to the roost site (at least 90 minutes) so that you do not miss the spectacle.
• Your binoculars (but these are not essential).
• Warm clothing, it can get very cold out on the marshes as the winter sun sets.
• A torch to find your way back to your car.
• Come back to the Avalon Marshes again at other times of day and during other seasons, there is always lots to see.
• Look at the UK Starlings website to see if you have a roost more local to you.
A special thank you to Lynne Newton for use of the wonderful starling photographs. Thanks also to Joy Russell who took the starling close up and has let us use many other photographs for this website.