The huge numbers of starlings that gather in winter over the Avalon Marshes are one of the most spectacular ‘wonders of the natural world’. The birds use the reedbeds at our nature reserves as a safe and warm night-time roost. Most of them 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 more tightly and form some breathtaking shapes.
Over recent years the phenomenon has become incredibly popular with visitors and at peak times – generally weekends and around Christmas/New Year – there could be up to a thousand people watching, so you may wish to think about visiting outside of these periods. We ask that visitors be considerate to each other ensuring that everyone can view the starlings safely, and maintain social distancing at all times.
Where to see them
The starlings usually roost on either Natural England’s Shapwick Heath reserve or RSPB’s Ham Wall reserve. You can find out where they roosted the night before by calling the Starling Hotline on 07866 554142 (1 Nov – 28 Feb). But be warned! This is where they roosted the night before and is no guarantee that this will be where they can be viewed the day you visit.
If you are planning to travel a long distance to see the starling roost, then we recommend that you check if there is a site closer to home you can visit. The starling murmuration/roost map on the Starlings in the UK website will help you find your closest site.
There are two car parks at ‘Ashcott Corner’, between Ashcott and Meare, giving access to Ham Wall and Shapwick Heath (BA6 9SX). 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, and spaces are also limited.
The roads around the reserves are very narrow, so if our car parks are full, please come back on another day and be considerate to our neighbours by not parking on road verges or in gateways, and do not restrict access for emergency vehicles. Thank you for your understanding.
Time of year
As the weather starts getting colder, the starlings begin to arrive in numbers. This is usually from early November and they stay until it gets milder in late February or early March.
Time of day
The time to see the murmurations is just before dusk. However, it is worth coming earlier to beat the crowds, arriving in the car park before 3.30pm at the latest to catch the spectacle. Please note that there may be a walk of up to 30 minutes depending on where the starlings are roosting. We actually recommend arriving by 2pm – there is always lots of other wildlife to discover out on Shapwick Heath and Ham Wall before the starlings start to congregate.
The starlings can be just as amazing when they leave their roost in the morning – the ‘dawn lift-off’ – as tens of thousands of birds erupt out of the reeds all at once. This usually happens about half an hour before sunrise, so 7.30am tends to be a good time to see this stunning show.
Follow this link for local dusk and dawn times.
Please note there are restrictions on bringing dogs to the Avalon Marshes nature reserves. At Ham Wall, dogs are only allowed (on leads please) on the main path from the car park and the public footpath which runs on the opposite side of the waterway (the Ham Wall loop).
Dogs are not allowed at all on the main area of Shapwick Heath, which is immediately across the road from Ham Wall.
There are no dog poo/litter bins on any of our reserves so please come prepared to take your waste home with you.
Registered assistance dogs are allowed in all areas.
What not to forget
• Warm clothing and hat/gloves – it can get very cold out on the marshes as the winter sun sets.
• A torch to find your way back to the car.
• Your binoculars (but these are not essential).
• Come back to the Avalon Marshes again during other seasons to discover our vast array of wildlife.
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.
For information call the Starling Hotline* – 07866 554142
*OPERATES FROM 1 NOVEMBER TO 28 FEBRUARY