February Highlight : Starling Murmurations

Perhaps the greatest wildlife spectacle in Britain

When to See a Starling Murmurations

During the winter months, from October to March, starlings from Scandinavia fly south to overwinter in the relatively warmer climate of Britain. These overwintering birds dramatically swell our native flocks creating the perfect opportunity to spot murmurations.

Starling murmurations are perhaps the best wildlife spectacle to see in the UK and if you pick your spot carefully you have a good chance to witness one. If you haven’t done so already, February is a good time to seek out this mesmerizing spectacle of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of the birds dancing in the sky, before the numbers start dwindling as flocks make their way back north in March.

The best time to see a starling murmuration is just before sunset at a spot with wide, open skies. It’s best to choose a clear day as the birds, even in huge flocks, are surprisingly tricky to spot on dull, overcast days until they are right overhead. There are several places throughout Britain that have reliable murmuration displays (see the list at the bottom of the post!) and it’s best to get there in plenty of time. Make sure you wrap up warm, take a hot drink and, I find, a giant slice cake never goes amiss! If you’re taking children with you make sure to take something to entertain them while they wait for the starlings to appear and, although murmurations are pretty reliable in certain locations they’re not guaranteed, so be prepared to find a way to deal with the potential disappointment.

starling murmuration at sunset reflected in the water of a wetland reserve

 

Why Do Starlings Dance?

As yet ornithologists and biology boffins can’t give a definitive reason as to why starlings perform murmurations but it’s likely to be due to safety in numbers, the larger the flock the smaller the risk to each individual bird. The starlings split into smaller flocks during the day and can travel many miles to seek out food but the dark of night brings with it a much greater risk of predation and so they roost together in huge numbers.

As to why they perform such amazing displays in the late afternoon skies this too is a matter for debate. It is probably due to both actual predation by prey birds who hang around the roosting areas or a perceived threat of such. It’s unclear as to why these threats cause the birds to perform breath-taking dances, swooping and turning in unison, transforming into schools of fish in the sky. Perhaps they twist and turn rapidly to confuse the prey birds or perhaps those birds on the outside of the flocks know that they’re at greater risk and so jostle for a safer position within the flock, causing a fast paced game of hot-potato in the sky with no bird willing to risk their own life on the edge! Maybe it’s just a beautiful consequence of the mass-panic of thousands of birds, terrified for their lives and hoping to make it to see the next sunrise.

Image by Laurie Campbell

Starling Decline

Sadly, starling populations are in decline throughout northern Europe including Britain. Although the cause of the decline is unknown it started in the 1980s. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has been undertaking long term monitoring of starling populations and it shows that numbers have declined by 66% in Britain since the mid-1970s. This dramatic decline in numbers has led to the starling being red-listed, meaning that it is a bird of high conservation concern.

There area a few things you can do to help your local starling population. It’s possible that a decline in their natural food sources is driving their decline in numbers so by providing high-fat food substitutes such as dried meal worms and suet balls you’ll be giving them a helping hand. You can also provide a safe home for native starlings to raise their chicks by putting up a starling nest box in your garden. The RSPB provide a step by step guide to building your own starling nest box here. Alternative you can BUY ONE NOW

The Best Places to See Starling Murmurations in Britain

There are several places throughout Britain where the starlings put on reliable performances during February.

  • West Pier, Brighton
  • Ham Wall, Somerset
  • Westhay National Nature Reserve, Somerset
  • Leighton Moss, Lancashire
  • Fen Daryton Lakes, Cambridgeshire
  • RSPB Salthome, near Middlesborough
  • Lower Marsh Farm, Wiltshire
  • Snape Maltings, Suffolk
  • RSPB Newport Wetlands, Gwent
  • Royal Pier, Aberystwyth, Ceredigion
  • RSPB Cors Ddyga, Anglesey
  • Gretna Green, Dumfries and Galloway
  • Albert Bridge, Belfast
  • Lough Ennell, Westmeath
  • Lackagh in Galway

Article by Lorna Crystal You can follow Lorna on Instagram