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.

Evening visit

Evening visit

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
Try to avoid weekends when it can get busy

Try to avoid weekends when it can get busy

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

The Roost Sites

In the first part of my starling guide I covered planning your visit.  Part 2 catalogues the most common roosting sites used by the birds.  Each day the birds roost together in a single mass of birds in a one reed bed.  There are hundreds of reed beds and no one knows which one the birds will use.

The RSPB hotline will tell you which reserve the birds used last night – but each reserve is huge. The Avalon Marshes Centre displays a map in their window showing the location the birds are roosting.  This gives you more information but interpreting the map can be confusing.

The challenge for visitors is to predict where the birds will roost next.  If you pick the wrong spot you may not see a single starling.  So here are  some of the likely sites.

The Waltons – Ham Wall
This is most visitor friendly roost site as it is next to the first RSPB viewing platform.  The roost site is regularly used over the Christmas period and is perfect for the first time visitor.

Waltons West

Waltons West from the Tor View hide

Excellent views can be had from the main drove looking south over the reeds towards the brighter sky.  Alternatively, the Tor View hide on the walk-way between the reed beds can give you a closer view.

Leaving the roost in Waltons East

Leaving the roost in Waltons East

The Loxtons – Ham Wall

A number of trails weave around the Loxtons go for a stroll before the birds arrive.  Time to relax.

Loxtons before the birds arrive

Loxtons before the birds arrive

The Loxtons is next to the Waltons but extends much deeper into the reserve which can make the birds harder to follow. The Loxtons can be viewed from the first viewing platform, or by walking further down the main drove looking for a clearing between the trees with a view to the south.

Waves of starlings descend into the Loxtons reed bed.

Waves of starlings descend into the Loxtons

Sometimes the birds roost deep in the southern side of Ham Wall towards Sharpham Moor where there is no public access.

Northern Ham Wall

When the birds are roosting in the northern edge of Ham Wall the flocks are often a long distance from the main drove. The birds are sometimes barely visible against the dark sky. On these days binoculars are needed when standing on the viewing platforms.   Alternatively, cross the small foot bridge and settle down in the new Avalon hide.
Western Ham Wall
On a few occasions the birds have roosted on the far western (Glastonbury) end of Ham Wall. Park in the Ashcott Corner car park and keep walking passed both viewing platforms. Look at for gaps in the trees looking north.
Canada Farm and Westhay Heath
The birds spend some time each year in this area at the far western end of Shapwick Heath. When the birds are here it is best to park at the Avalon Marshes Visitors Centre. Alternatively, if you are lucky, there are spaces for a few cars near the entrance to Shapwick Heath by the bridge.
GRAPHIC
Decoy Hide
The Decoy Hide provides views of the starlings across the open water as many birds approach. The raised reserve path can also offer excellent views of the birds .
It gives sheltered views of Starlings flying past Glastonbury Tor.
Meare Hide
The Meare Hide is in the centre of the Shapwick heath reserve but is best reached from Ashcott Corner.
The Scrap
Stand to the east of the Meare Heath woods to see the birds roost.
The new hide.

Westhay Heath

Once this was once the best site to watch starlings. People would line the main drove, some standing on step ladders or even car roofs to get the best view. Up to 5 million birds would regularly roost here and in the morning they would pour over the visitors.

Today very few birds roost at Westhay. It seems the reeds are too old and weak to support the weight of the birds. The water is deep and cutting back the reeds would be very expensive.  Many websites still list Westhay (Heath) as one of the best starling sites. For now I suggest you ignore these and focus on the other reserves.

Cold morning at Westhay Heath

Cold morning at Westhay Heath

Gathering Sites
Hawk and Owl
You may be lucky to see the flocks of birds gathering in the fields along the B3151 prior to moving to their roost site.
PICTURE
The birds sometimes gather around Stileway Farm. They cover the roof of the barn and surrounding trees before moving into the reserve.
PICTURE

Photographing Starling Displays
The best advice I can give is leave the camera at home and enjoy the spectacle instead. If, like me, you are going to completely ignore that advice and dream of that perfect picture, then I hope this guide to help you.
Ideally choose a time when you can commit to three days in a row to the starlings. Of course you can compress this into two days if you need to.
Day One
My first recommendation is to start with an evening visit. The birds will start to arrive just as it gets too dark to take pictures with most cameras. As conditions are challenging for a simple point and shot use the best camera and lens you have for low light. I would suggest you use nothing longer than a mid- range zoom.
This is an evening to experiment with your camera. Raise the ISO to at least 800 or even 3200 to allow a fast enough shutter speed. I have many pictures of blurred lines of birds because I thought a high ISO would create too much noise. Ask yourself – “Do I want blurred pictures, or sharp pictures with lots of grain?”
Everyone will have a camera so expect to get other people in your pictures and expect to see yourself in other peoples’ pictures.
Sometimes the Ham Wall viewing platforms look like the edges of a Premiership football pitch – a line of big telephoto lenses pointing out into the reserve. Its tempting to copy everyone else but it is my guess is this is their first time too.
The view north is always towards a dull grey sky. Will a long lens cut through the layers of moisture in the air as the mists start to form? So avoid looking inadequate against their expensive equipment, so turn around attach a fast standard lens and capture the birds arriving through a golden sunset,
Day Two
The birds tend to roost in the same place for several days before moving to another part of the reserve. So on day two assume they will return to the same location.
This is a day to specialise and to capture that more creative picture – not the one with the back of other people’s heads you took from the viewing platform yesterday. Today’s picture might show the birds flying over Glastonbury Tor or rushing between the reed beds reflected in the water.
Arrive early and explore the paths and view points around the spot you know the birds will roost. As the birds start to arrive leave the others on the viewing platform while you get your dream picture.
Day Three
Now you have your evening shots in the bag this is the best time to capture the birds rising in the morning. This is only possible because you know precisely where the birds have roosted.
If the views are clear this is a good time to get your wide angle lens out to capture the huge flocks as they pass low over head. Alternatively, set the camera to movie mode and follow the monster through the reeds as it turns into a volcano of birds.
So, ideally select a time when you can commit to three days in a row. Of course you can compress this trip into two consecutive days if you need to. But don’t spread the days out over a longer period. How will you know where the birds are if you visit one day a week? After a few days the birds more on to another part of the reserve – so the best chance of being in the right place is to visit for a few days in a row.