Somerset Starling Guide
The landscape of the Avalon Marshes is where a million starlings choose to spend their winter nights. The marshes providing some relative warmth and safety. For us this creates an amazing spectacle to watch twice a day.
The starling season starts in November peaks around Christmas and continues through into February. The birds arrive around sunset, spend the night amongst the reeds, then leave at dawn each morning.
Each day the birds choose their communal roost site which can be anywhere on the marshes. This is a huge area covering several miles so to get the most out of your visit you need to plan ahead. I hope this guide will help.
The Avalon Marshes are managed by the RSPB, Natural England and Somerset Wildlife Trust. The marshes consist of a group of nature reserves. The best ones to see starlings are Ham Wall and Shapwick Heath. Guides to these are available online:
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 Ham Wall: This is a large pay and display car park charging £3 per day at machine or kiosk. RSPB members can park for free so remember to bring your membership card and display it up side down on your dashboard. Blue badge holders also park for free.
- Ashcott Corner Shapwick Heath: An alternative to the large RSPB car park. The smaller Natural England car park also costs £3 per day via an app on your mobile phone. Natural England parking permit and blue badge holders are free.
- 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.
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 starling hotline. If you go to the wrong end you will be in for a long walk.
Make sure that you lock your car and keep valuables out of sight. A few years ago I arrived early to discover all but one of the cars in the car park had been broken into.
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
- Most days binoculars are not needed
- A camera with a short zoom that lets in lots of light
- A torch if you do not like the dark
Two Shows a Day
The starlings provide two shows each day. The most popular lasts about an hour and starts around sunset. Go to this show if you want 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
Evenings are far more popular than mornings. Groups of birds arrive from all directions before merging into enormous flocks. The display ends as the birds descend into the reeds. This same roost site may be used for several days before they move on.
Ring the RSPB hotline (07866 554142) before setting off!
Arrive early. The birds should return around sunset but you will need time to park and walk to the viewing points. People will start to arrive at least an hour before sunset and the car parks fill quickly.
If you have a smart phone you may find it useful to get a sunset app, alternatively use the internet to check the time of sunset. Search sunset time glastonbury.
When you arrive you need to find the best viewing spot.
- Check with the RSPB staff and volunteers at the Ashcott Corner car park
- If you know your way around the reserve check-out the location of the starling stickers on their map
- 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
A 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 the noise from the reeds.
As dawn begins the birds start to move. They remind me of an enormous black monster swimming through the reeds surfacing now and again 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 silent 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.
The Roost Sites
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 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 any starlings. So here are some of the most popular sites.
The Waltons Ham Wall
This is most visitor friendly roost site as it is next to the first viewing platform. The roost site is regularly used over the Christmas period and is perfect for the first time visitor.
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.
The Loxtons Ham Wall
A number of trails weave around the Loxtons go for a stroll 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 see. 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.
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.
You may get a better view by crossing the small foot bridge just beyond the viewing platform and walking along the banks of the Glastonbury Canal. Somewhere near the sky chairs (you will know these if you see them) can be excellent.
Alternatively, cross the small foot bridge and settle down in the Avalon hide. If that is you plan then get there early to get a window view.
Eastern Ham Wall
On a few occasions the birds have roosted on the eastern (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.
Decoy Hide on Shapwick Heath
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 on Shapwick Heath
The Meare Hide is in the middle of the Shapwick Heath reserve but is a shorter walk from the Ashcott Corner car parks.
The Scrape on Shapwick Heath
Stand to the east of the Meare Heath woods to see the birds roost.
The new hide.
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. Many websites still list Westhay (Heath) as one of the best starling sites. For now I suggest you ignore these and focus on Ham Wall or Shapwick Heath.
Photographing Starling Displays
The best advice I can give is leave the camera at home and enjoy the spectacle. 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 visiting the marshes a few days in a row.
My first recommendation is to start with an evening visit. The birds will start to arrive just as it gets too dark to take clean 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. For example, a 24-120mm f2.8 or 70-200mm f2.8.
This is an evening to experiment with your camera. Raise the ISO allow a fast 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?” I would go for lots of grain then clean this up on the computer when you get home.
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 usually looking towards a dull grey sky. Will your long lens cut through the layers of moisture in the air as the mists start to form? Instead turn around attach a fast standard lens and capture the birds arriving through a golden sunset,
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. You should now be familiar with the layout of the reserve and the location of gaps in the trees where you can get a view. So 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.
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.