It’s the noise that will stay with me. Hundreds of thousands of wings, beating in unison overhead. Sometimes they're so close you feel the very breath of their movement, the ebb and flow of flight, the ‘swoosh’ of their collective energy as they come together in acrobatic clouds of darkness.
And then there’s the chattering of course. The post-flight conversations as the birds settle down in the reeds for the night, exchanging stories about the best places for a bite to eat most probably. They fly and feed up to twenty miles away from the roost, so there's bound to be some differences of opinion... and am I the only one imagining their chats of "we need comfier bedding dear", "cuddle up my feet are cold", or "come on now, you’re taking up far too much of my side of the mattress”? Maybe... but what I can say without doubt, is that going to see the starlings as they swoop into our Somerset nature reserves at this time of year (and swirl in the skies to create the most magical of spectacles for the watching crowds below), is something that fires up all the senses - and definitely the imagination, for me.
Of course the anticipation is something pretty special as well, because although you can phone ahead to the starling hotline, if you’re heading to Ham Wall, Westhay or Shapwick Heath for a visit, you never quite know exactly which bit of it they’re going to turn up in.
As we head out to the Avalon Hide at Ham Wall, with Somerset artist Jackie Curtis and Clavelshay Barn’s Sue Milverton one sunny afternoon, Jackie tells us that the way they keep people guessing is one of the things she loves most about these amazing birds.
The starlings have a huge influence on Jackie’s work. Her face lights up when she talks about them and she can often be found in the nature reserves before sunrise and dusk, seeking out the best place to capture the starling spectacle.
“I love the roar of the dawn lift off on a damp misty morning,” says Jackie with a glint in her eye, “as well as the spectacle of the starlings coming back to the roost site. I have different names of my own for the flock – a 'natter', a 'squabble', a 'gossip', - and watching the gossip grow is simply mesmerising. I photograph them and write poems, which I then use to inspire my work ”.
Well, we’re definitely very lucky to be out with Jackie - and with Sue, who has her own special connection with the birds too:
“I saw my first starling murmuration about 20 years ago”, Sue explains. “I was driving at the time and just had to stop the car to watch. I got out and stood, enthralled, and didn’t want it to end. It was so beautiful. Now every winter, I head to Ham Wall in the hope of seeing something as glorious as that first one”.
And Sue isn’t alone. Many of the people I chat to can remember exactly where they were the very first time they experienced a murmuration, as well as the distinct feeling it gave them.
Somerset photographer, Mark Pickthall, was a recent guest on our radio show and I get goosebumps just listening to him describe the very first time he became hooked on one of nature’s most stunning spectacles.
“ It was really foggy and the birds literally rose out of the reeds. They came over me and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I was absolutely blown away by the spectacle and by the noise - and this wasn't a normal situation, but they actually started to murmurate for about 20 minutes! I was completely hooked".
We first met Mark at his Somerset Art Weeks exhibition, which featured his breathtaking photos of the starlings, and you can hear Mark chatting with us about the murmurations and more right here.
The murmurations take awesome nature photographer Carl Bovis back to his childhood on his grandad's farm in Kent – the first time Carl witnessed the phenomenon.
“I can clearly remember my disbelief as I stared skyward in wonder, as a seemingly endless cloud of birds passed noisily overhead. The Somerset murmurations are on an even bigger scale and as I’m watching the hundreds of thousands of starlings coming in to roost, I still feel the same way I did all those years ago. It’s a magical natural spectacle, one I’d happily experience every night for the rest of my life - and never tire of”.
We couldn’t agree more with Carl's sentiment and what strikes me, hearing Carl, Mark and Sue’s stories, is how these glossy birds with their sheen of multi-coloured plumage, bring us all together. They connect with each other as they make their incredible shapes in the sky, but they also connect everyone who witnesses it... with their own everlasting memories of that first viewing. Now that’s something very special indeed.
As we sit in the hide and excitedly wait for the ‘natter’ to make their appearance, we meet another Somerset wildlife photographer, Robin Morrison.
Robin’s enjoyment is down to the huge numbers of birds overhead he tells us - and like us, he's transfixed by their sounds. Dawn is a particularly special time for that he says:
“At dawn, if you arrive early, the starlings are almost silent, but as the light levels increase, so does the noise as they exercise, chatter and move around prior to departure. Then, like the flick of a switch, they lift off and suddenly the sky is full of birds. A few minutes later they’re gone and the quiet returns".
Somerset photographer Michelle Cowbourne also has special memories of mornings with the starlings:
“It's the sheer amazement at the wonder of nature” she says. “I went to see the take off and it was incredible to see them still in their roost – such a big area of black, it looked like a peat mound on the reeds. The noise started to build and with it the excitement and energy. Unbelivably beautiful to watch”.
Well, as we sit and wait in the afternoon as the anticipation rises, I become lost in the beauty of the view towards The Tor. Two passing swans glide by as if they’re on a daytrip together... and just breathing it all in, sitting in the quiet safety of the wooden shelter, washes away any worries of the past week.
Suddenly, echoes of excited gasps and whispers of “look... over there” bounce off the wooden walls. We blink and we see them... tiny coal-coloured specks in the distance as they slowly stream in, in their thousands. And thousands more... until hundreds of thousands fill up the sky.
It’s nature’s magic, pure and simple, and we're so very lucky to be part of it right here in Somerset - at dusk and at sunrise.
And what can top off the wonder of seeing the starlings for us? A beautiful Somerset sunset, that's what!
As we head home, with our heads full of colour and flutter, the weight’s been lifted from our shoulders and we have memories to treasure forever.
Thank you, Somerset. Thank you, starlings.
You can normally see the starlings in Somerset from the beginning of November to the end of February/very early March, depending on the weather. The flocks are usually at their largest in December and January. You can call the starling hotline for up to date information on 07866 554142. The advice from RSPB Ham Wall is to please be sensible and not park on verges when visiting. If possible, go on weekdays when it’s less busy too.
Photo credit to Jackie Curtis for the header photograph in this blog.