Starling murmation

Last week I was in Somerset to spend some time with family. Among the things we did was visit what are now called the Avalon marshes, a wetland nature reserve in the middle of the Somerset levels. My niece Chloe likes to explore the paths and tracks at Shapwick Heath. This time a man showed us some puffballs which were hidden around the base of trees.

The main attraction, however, was the starling roost. Just before dusk, you get sometimes tens of thousands of birds flocking together. They swoop and dive, making amazing patterns in the sky.

Interestingly, recent studies of starling flocks have shown that each bird modifies its position relative to its six or seven birds neighbours. How near these birds are doesn't matter, that is, the topological distance rather than the metric distance is what matters. That helps the flock handle the changes in density. Perhaps that's why the mesmerising patterns seem so elastic and flowing.

There is a starling hotline on 07866 554142 which tells you where the birds were roosting on the previous day. It told us that they had been in Ham Wall, the next reserve over. We got there just in time to see some pretty spectacular patterns being witnessed by about fifty awestruck visitors. I'm proud to report that Chloe was highly excited by all of this too, dramatically declaring 'I don't know what to say'.

All of this was accompanied with gingerbread cows made earlier in the day. We went to The Ashcott afterwards. Good food, and they accommodated Chloe's order of chicken, cheese and chutney without any problem.

The show is on from the end of October through to early March, but the numbers are greatest in December and January. The starlings move around so it's best to check the starling hotline before setting out. If they do make a return to Ham Wall on the day you visit, I noticed that the RSPB have developed the facilities there since I was local, and now there's a 120-space car park, toilets, and a welcome building.