A spectacular starling encounter in the White Peak

A murmuration of starlings

A murmuration of starlings - Credit: Archant

Out and about with Roly Smith


Starling - Credit: Archant

The crowd of around 30 birdwatchers, all wrapped up warm against the cold, stood patiently waiting on Middleton Moor for what was surely one of the finest avian wildlife spectacles to be seen regularly in Britain. Birder and broadcaster Bill Oddie has compared it favourably with anything you might see among migrating herds of animals in the Serengeti Plains of equatorial Africa.

The object of the birders’ wait in the cold was the daily gathering of thousands of starlings – appropriately known as a murmuration (which is exactly the sound they make as they roost) – which was taking place every evening at dusk. The site was an unlikely one, the former Cavendish Mill fluorspar mine high on Middleton Moor on the White Peak limestone plateau, just outside Stoney Middleton.

The starlings used the silent and now reed-fringed former tailing lagoons at Cavendish Mill to roost overnight, and they came from miles around to congregate in huge numbers. Ornithologists think this is most probably a defence mechanism against possible predators, but it’s difficult not to wonder if there’s not some kind of social aspect to their behaviour as well.

A hush fell over the waiting birdwatchers as the first clouds of starlings arrived and began to swoop and dive over the trees, creating ever-changing, surrealistic shapes in the sky. More and more arrived, swelling the clouds into enormous numbers – estimates have put them as high as 200,000 birds – which at times seemed to blacken the sky.

It was truly an awe-inspiring sight as the constantly shape-shifting, dipping and diving clouds of birds seemed to take on a life of their own. Who was taking the lead, dictating these flowing, billowing clouds like swirling smoke across the sky, I wondered? It was a question no one could answer, not even, I suspect, the starlings themselves.

Then, as if at a pre-arranged signal, some of the birds started to drop like stones out of the sky and into the welcoming reedbeds below. But not all had had enough of their amazing aerial display, as they continued to swoop and climb up, creating those fascinating patterns in the now-darkening winter sky.

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Finally, the last of the flocks dropped into the reedbeds, and we heard their chattering, or ‘murmuration’, as if they were recounting to each other on the day’s foraging they had enjoyed across the White Peak pastures, and the prospects for tomorrow.

As the sun set over Wardlow Hay Cop, the birdwatchers wended their way back to the warmth of their cars, chattering away like the starlings who had just given them such an amazing free airshow.