I have been watching the starlings on the Somerset Levels for over 10 years. I have been at Ham Wall, Shapwick Heath and Westhay Moor hundreds of times. Why? Because I love it. Why? Because its as close as I can get to a wilderness spectacle. In Somerset you cannot see herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plain but you can see a million starlings returning to their roost, pulling together to get through the night.
The Avalon Marshes are a mini-wilderness. One without the risks of being eaten by lions or wolves. But there is a risk – you may not see any starlings! They could roost anywhere. The RSPB do their best to guide visitors, but there are no guarantees. This chase is part of the experience.
I take lots of pictures of the starlings but that not why I go. Someone will by luck, or judgement, take a better picture than you. Instead, simply enjoy the spectacle. This is my guide to help you to do just that.
My Starling Guide
I’ve posted this guide before but the world keeps changing so it needed a refresh.
The starling seasons starts in November peaks in December and January, and continues on through February. The birds arrive around sunset, roost amongst the reeds, then rise next dawn. Each evening the birds choose a communial roost site which could be anywhere on the marshes. This is a big area covering several miles so to improve your chances of seeing the birds you need to a bit of planning before your visit.
The Avalon Marshes are managed by the RSPB, Natural England and Somerset Wildlife Trust. The best directions are available online on their websites:
- Shapwick Heath: Avalon Marshes Centre
- Ham Wall: RSPB Guide
The roads to the car parks are dark, narrow and uneven. The lumps and mumps change from year to year as the peat beneath them swells and shrinks. So drive carefully and thoughtfully.
Depending on where the birds are expected to roost choose one of the following car parks .
- For Ham Wall and Eastern Shapwick Heath – Ashcott Corner: This is a pay and display car park charging £3 per day. RSPB members can park for free so remember to bring your membership card and display it on your dashboard. Blue badge holders also park for free (See Ham Wall facilities). It can get busy so take care to follow the new oneway system.
- For Western Shapwick Heath – The Avalon Marshes Centre: If the birds are at the west end of Shapwick Heath then parking is available at the Avalon Marshes Centre. If you arrive early there maybe a few spaces at the side of the road near the entrance to the reserve.
The roads will be busy after the event. So if you need to park on the side of the road make sure you park facing the direction you want to leave – this is usually the opposite direction to the way you arrived!
What to take?
- Your RSPB membership card to avoid car parking fees – leave this on your dashboard.
- A jacket, hat and gloves to to keep you warm
- A torch if you do not like the dark
If you want to take pictures a long telephoto is unlikely to be needed. Instead take shorter fast prime or zooms lens. Binoculars are useful while waiting for the starlings to arrive – look out for otters, bitterns, marsh harriers and great white egrets.
The starlings provide two shows each day. The most popular lasts for about an hour and starts around sunset. Go to this show if you want to see swirling mumurations in the sky. If you what to watch birds explode from the reeds like a starling volcano then the mornings are best. I suggest your first visit is in the evening then return in the next morning.
An Evening Visit
Evenings are much more popular than mornings.
Groups of birds arrive from all directions sometimes merging into enormous flocks. The display ends as the birds descend together into the reeds. This roost site may be used for several days before the birds choose a new site.
To improve your chances of going to the best spot ring the RSPB hotline (07866 554142) before setting off – then talk to their staff and volunteers at the hut, next to the toilets, in the car park.
Arrive early. The birds will start to arrive at sunset but you need to allow time to park and walk to the best viewing points. People will start to arrive at least an hour before sunset and the car parks fill quickly.
Use the internet to check the time of sunset – put sunset glastonbury into Google.
To find the best viewing spot:
- Check with the RSPB staff and volunteers by their hut in the Ashcott Corner car park
- Ask around and find someone who saw the birds roost the night before
- Watch the first few flocks to see where they are flying
A Morning Visit
Before going on a morning visit you need to know where the starlings roosted the night before – so it is best to visit the previous evening. Arrive before sunrise in plenty of time to park and walk to last night’s roost site. Initially it will be hard to see the starlings in the dark, but you will soon hear them.
As dawn begins the birds start to move. They remind me of an enormous black monster swimming through the reeds surfacing now and then to take breath. It will go silent for a couple of seconds, as the birds take a deep breath, before the birds explode across the sky.