Photographs: Starling murmurations in the Peak District

Amazing shapes formed by the thousands of starlings over the reed beds in the Peak District

Amazing shapes formed by the thousands of starlings over the reed beds in the Peak District - Credit: Archant

Photographs of the amazing starling ‘performances’ in the Peak

Amazing shapes formed by the thousands of starlings over the reed beds in the Peak District.

Amazing shapes formed by the thousands of starlings over the reed beds in the Peak District. - Credit: Archant

Over the years I have been in awe of the many wildlife programmes shown on television and always thought that the experts who give their lives to studying wildlife are the only ones who get the chance to witness the stunning sights that you see. However, a chance encounter with a short film on Facebook of a mass of starlings blackening the sky over the Peak District started me on a quest that was to have a massive impact on my life and change the way I see my surroundings forever.

The starling native to Britain is a black-coloured bird that on closer inspection reveals an array of colours, which stand out especially in sunlight. They are a fairly small passerine bird in the family Sturnidae. The name Sturnidae comes from the Latin word for starling, sturnus. Starlings are native to Europe, Asia and Africa, to northern Australia and the islands of the tropical Pacific. There are many types of starlings around the world of varying sizes and colours; the one we are familiar with is the Common Starling. Their preferred habitat is fairly open ground and they will forage for insects and fruit. They are also a very social bird, spending most of their lives in groups of varying sizes. A flock of starlings is called a murmuration.

It is as we enter autumn and the onset of colder conditions, out of the breeding season, that this little bird comes into its own. Many different groups around the country converge at hotspots that are ideal for them to roost for the night. The most popular sites are reed beds but starlings are also well known for roosting under piers on the coast, such as at Brighton and Aberystwyth.

What happens before they settle down for the night has become one of the great natural wonders of the world. As the sun vanishes over the horizon the starlings will fly to the site and join up with those already there, creating an ever-increasing mass of birds darkening the sky. They will fly around the whole area, twisting and turning in all directions, sometimes making extraordinary shapes in the sky from the varying density of birds that can be seen. There are a number of theories as to why they do this. It could be to look out for possible predators lying in wait for them, flying together for safety as a bird of prey would find it hard to focus on catching one bird when faced with so many. It could also be a social activity, a chance to see how well others are doing and positioning themselves near to those who look well fed so they can follow them the following morning to where they are feeding. By the time they swoop in to roost there could be over 100,000 starlings in the group. Numbers are swelled in winter by migratory starlings from colder parts of Europe, as they seek unfrozen ground to feed from. There will also be a social order amongst the birds, with those of a higher status picking the best roosts at the top of the reeds and those lower down the order having to perch below them. They will perch fairly tightly packed in one area to keep as warm as possible through the long cold nights.

Starlings flock over the reed beds in the evening twighlight in the Peak District.

Starlings flock over the reed beds in the evening twighlight in the Peak District. - Credit: Archant

In Derbyshire starlings use a reed bed near Willington in the south of the county but there is one closer to my home in the centre of the Peak District, which had been brought to my attention.

After seeing them on social media I had to go and on my very first visit I struck lucky. It was a still, late afternoon in the middle of November. I parked next to Middleton Moor near to Cavendish Mill. The site of the reed beds belongs to the mill and is part of an old slurry pit, which can be very treacherous with quick sand. Because of this, the mill was reluctant for people to go and see the starling spectacle but it was agreed to have a cordoned off area where they could stand at the top of the track to the site. There is also a path to a wooden hide nearer the middle of the site.

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I decided to stand at the top of the track and luckily the starlings chose to settle in the reeds just over the other side of the fence, giving me a very close view of the birds performing in the sky directly in front.

I had seen these amazing scenes on the TV but nothing could have prepared me for seeing it with my own eyes. There seemed to be an endless stream of starlings flying in at great speed from every direction, making a beeline for those already circling the reeds. Without any warning they would change direction and as they did so, they would create some amazing shapes. It is incredible that they never seemed to crash into each other, flying in unison. Then they would literally dive down into the reeds creating a crescendo of noise as they settled, as if they were catching up on the day’s gossip with their neighbour for the night.

From that moment I was hooked and whenever I got the chance I would make my way there with an ever-increasing crowd as word got around about this amazing sight. The more I went, the more I learned about the starlings. No two evenings were ever the same. They would never settle in the same spot two nights running and how they performed was sometimes influenced by the weather. If it was very windy or wet they would mostly dive straight in for the night, but a clear still dusk often meant they would stay up in the air for as long as possible, as if making the most of the lovely conditions to show off their aerial display. I also never saw the same shape twice and would follow them around the sky with my camera expecting an amazing shape at any moment. One of my favourite shapes was one which to me looked like a Brontosaurus flying through the sky!

The start of the day provided a totally different spectacle. I made it on a few occasions in the pre-dawn twilight to see them all take off to go to their chosen feeding areas for the day. Unsurprisingly, not as many people would gather for this. On a couple of occasions I was the only person there. It certainly was not quite as impressive as the dusk display and was usually over within seconds. On one occasion I chose to go into the hide just as a golden glow was appearing in the eastern sky. It was not long before I heard a strange roaring noise. At first I thought it was a lorry rumbling along the road to the mill but it was actually the starlings! Soon after the noise had started, right on cue thousands of starlings seemed to take off at the same time, turning the sky in front of me black as they scattered in every direction. Seconds later there were just a few stragglers left heading off into the dawn.

Last autumn/winter proved to be a very impressive year as we had quite a mild winter leaving the fields of the Peak District unfrozen for virtually the whole season, giving the starlings great conditions in the fields to get the food they needed. If the snow and ice comes along, the birds head further south in search of milder conditions to feed in.

By the start of spring the birds concentrate on breeding and this massive spectacle dies down until the nights start drawing in again.

Nature can be very unpredictable and no day or season will be the same. After having a superb autumn/winter from 2013 to 2014 the following season was very poor for starling displays in the Peak District. I went once at the end of 2014, only for the starlings to appear in groups and fly straight into the reeds, giving no displays at all. The weather through to the following spring did not provide the right conditions for the starlings to give spectacular displays. There was a strong wind and periods of very cold temperatures, with frozen and frosty ground or blankets of snow making it hard for the starlings to feed, forcing them to move south to milder conditions. I had to cherish my great memories of the year before and hope that conditions would be right again for more great starling experiences the following year. Perhaps in the coming months I will get the chance again but ever since, I have noticed these amazing performers everywhere I go and now get excited when I see even a single starling, because it evokes memories of those amazing murumations. I have certainly come to realise that this is no ordinary bird.

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