Somerset Starling Guide

My Somerset Starling Guide

Starling Murmuration at the Avalon Marshes

Starling Murmuration at the Avalon Marshes

Over the last few years there have been many changes at the Avalon Marshes.  The number of birds has dropped and the number of visitors has risen.  So I decided it was time to refresh the Starling Guide.

The starling seasons starts building in November peaks in December and January, and continues through February.  The birds arrive around sunset and rise at dawn each day.  Each day the birds choose a communial roost site which can be anywhere on the marshes.  This is a big area covering several miles so you need to plan your visit. I hope this guide will help.

One million starlings fill the sky

One million starlings fill the sky

Getting There

The Avalon Marshes are managed by the RSPB, Natural England and Somerset Wildlife Trust.  The best directions are available online on their websites:

The roads over the Somerset Levels are very uneven. The lumps change from year to year as the peat on which the roads are built swell and shrink. Driving too fast can result in you taking off and landing with a bit of a crunch.

Depending on where the birds are expected to roost choose one of the following car parks .

  • 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).
  • Avalon Marshes Centre: If the birds are at the west end of Shapwick Heath then parking is available at the Avalon Marshes Centre or there are a few spaces on the side of the road near the entrance to the reserve.

If the car parks are full and 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. Turning in the dark, as everyone returns to their cars at the same time, can be a challenge.

Make sure that you lock your car and keep valuables out of sight.  A few years ago I arrived at Westhay Heath to discover all but one of the cars in the car park had been broken into.

Except for Westhay Heath the reserves form a line along the Glastonbury Canal. It is several miles from one end to the other. So the first question to ask before you leave home is – Which end will I park? This is best answered by checking the RSPB telephone hotline. If you go to the wrong end you will be in for a long walk.

What to take

  • Your RSPB membership card to avoid needing to buy a car park ticket
  • A jacket, hat and gloves to to keep you warm
  • If you want to take pictures a long telephoto is unlikely to be useful
  • Most days binoculars are not needed
  • A torch if you do not the dark
Starlings turn the reed bed black

Starlings turn the reed bed black

Two Shows a Day
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 wants to see swirling patterns in the sky.  If you what to watch birds explode from the reeds like a starling volcano then the mornings are for you. I suggest your first visit should be in the evening then return in the next morning to complete the experience.

Planning an Evening Visit

A beautiful sunset at Shapwick Heath

A beautiful sunset at Shapwick Heath

Evenings are much more popular than mornings.  Hope to see the starling murmurations swirling in the sky creating those famous patterns.  Groups of birds arrive from all directions before merging into a single enormous flock.  The display ends as the birds descend together into the reeds.  This roost site may be used for several days.

Ring the RSPB hotline (07866 554142) before setting off!

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 soon fill.

If you have a smart phone you may find it useful to get a sunset mobile, alternatively use the internet to check the time of sunset. Put sunset time glastonbury into Google.

Try to avoid weekends when it can get busy

Try to avoid weekends when it can get busy

When you arrive you need 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
  • If the birds are at Ham Wall walk to the first viewing platform and ask around
Evening visit

Evening visit

A Morning Visit

Morning Visit

Morning Visit

Before a morning visit you need to know where the starlings roosted the night before – so it is best to visit the reserve 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.

Deep in the starling roost from the Tor View hide

Deep in the starling roost from the Tor View hide

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. Sometimes the monster reaches the edge of a bed and turns or pours across from one bed to another.  Suddenly it will go quite for a couple of seconds just before the birds explode across the sky.

A volcano of starlings spreading out over your head just above the tree tops leaving the roost site silent.

Starlings Explode from the Reeds

Starlings Explode from the Reeds

 

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