The very best wildlife spectacles have the power to amaze, surprise and entertain us.
This week I was privileged to feel all three emotions in the space of 30 minutes on a trip to Leighton Moss nature reserve in Lancashire.
Leighton Moss is one of the best RSPB reserves in Britain, boasting large areas of reedbeds and wetlands supporting a clutch of rare birds including bitterns, bearded tits and marsh harriers.
But for me it’s the reserve’s stunning starling spectacle that is the highlight of an autumn or winter visit.
I’ve seen flocks of starlings congregating before – notably at Caerlaverock on the Scottish Borders – but this is something else.
This starling ‘show’ has a definite ‘wow’ factor.
Starlings are not everyone’s favourite birds but I love these industrious workers with their gorgeous speckled plumage and iridiscent feathers that reflect blues, greens, purples and oily blacks in the sunshine.
Their feathers are speckled with gold shaped ‘tears’ and creamy streaks which add to their eye-catching appearance.
When several flocks come together in autumn and winter, the sky can turn black as thousands of these small birds form a murmuration or aerial display. It’s one of nature’s great wonders.
As more and more starlings join the main flock, the birds coalesce and swoop around, forming patterns and geometric shapes across the dusk sky before diving down to roost for the night.
It’s thought that the birds flock together because there’s safety in numbers – because a bigger flock can ward off predators like birds of prey much more effectively. A bit like gang warfare and tribal protection.
As we waited for the ‘starling show’, there was a huge air of expectation in the hide at the far end of the reserve.
A local man sitting next to me explained that the previous night’s murmuration had been one of the most spectacular of the month, lasting around an hour. Apparently, everyone had applauded and cheered at the end of the spectacle.
But our show was about to begin, and already the birds were running late.
We watched for a while as a lone marsh harrier flew across the fields, waiting for a slice of the action, no doubt hoping for an opportunistic dinner by picking off one of the starlings on the edge of the flock.
A kingfisher flashed by the hide as it sped across the water as if it were searching for a great viewing platform of its own.
Then a small group of starlings appeared like a scouting party, before a much larger flock started a series of fly-overs around 16:00, just before dusk.
Next came an explosion of starlings as huge groups joined up to form a whirling mass of black bodies in the sky, cascading at one point into a figure of eight swirl which then reversed and formed the shape of an oscillating coil.
When the birds flew overhead the ‘whoosh’ from their wings was incredible, but you have to be close enough to the action to get the complete effect.
The noise made by thousands of small wings beating at the same time grew in intensity as more and more birds joined the bigger flock.
Finally the whole group came together as one, swirling in their many thousands, shape-shifting and filling the whole of the skies with their stunning patterns.
After 20 minutes of swirls and whirls, it was all over as quickly as it had started. The birds dropped to the ground in large numbers, tumbling like riders on a descending rollercoaster ride.
They were back in their roosts, hunkered down for the night, ready for a good rest.
Then silence – followed by near darkness. The show was over for the night but will be returning nightly for the next few weeks.
This BBC Autumnwatch video from Leighton Moss captures the sensational starlings in action:
As we reflected on this incredible sight, I was curious about these birds which we seem to have lost from many of our gardens. As a child I remember dozens of starlings walking around our lawn at home in their comedic, perky style.
I remember their vocal displays with a variety of clicks, gurgles, and squawking sounds and their song which is a quick-fire mix of rattles, trills and whistles.
I love the way they mimic other birds’ calls and sounds. I’m told that they’ve even been known to copy mobile phone ringtones.
These days I only seem to see starlings in groups outside work where they appear to be having a loud but highly sociable conversation with fellow birds sitting on top of the TV aerials.
Since 1970 starling numbers have declined by 70% in Britain, a really sobering thought.
At Leighton Moss there’s still a large build up of starling numbers at this time of year because the UK birds are joined by thousands from continental Europe who spend the winter here.
It’s amazing that they don’t hit each other when they’re flying in a large flock of around 50,000 birds. I’ve read that they have a reaction time of less than 100 milli-seconds, so they can adapt quickly to whatever their neighbour is doing.
RSPB Leighton Moss’ warden made the great quip that they’d make pretty good Formula One racing drivers – and I wouldn’t disagree!
Around the reserve
But Leighton Moss isn’t just a one trick pony – it has many more wildlife surprises up its sleeve from birds and bats to marine life to mammals.
There are regular sightings of otters throughout the autumn and winter, particularly near the Public and Lower Hides.
Sadly, I’ve never spotted otters on this reserve but perhaps I need to be more patient and play the waiting game in future?
On this trip we took the nature trail along to the furthest hides along two coastal lagoons where there was a great selection of wading birds and waterfowl.
A group of stunning snipe were feeding right in front of the reserve’s main Grisedale Hide, a great opportunity to watch them up close.
Other birders told us that there were good views of the snipe at the reserve’s other hides too.
This beautifully patterned bird is characterised by its long beak and chunky body with geometric patterns on the wing feathers.
It reminded me of the abstract patterning on the perfect pottery creations which Pablo Picasso made during his later years in the south of France!
Bearded tits and bitterns
Leighton Moss is also renowned for its rarities including bearded tits which can be spotted flying across the reeds and picking up grit from the paths during the autumn months.
On this trip, I was out of luck but we have seen small numbers of these birds on previous visits, mainly on the grit trays near the reedbeds on the far side of the reserve.
Apparently the bearded tits are not reliably coming to the grit trays everyday at the reserve now, as had been the case earlier in October and November.
Another bird that proved to be elusive on this trip was the bittern although there are considerable numbers of these skulky, brown birds living in the reed beds on the reserve.
They’re very difficult to spot at the best of times as they camouflage themselves so well with the colours of the habitat.
I’m told that the best time to see and hear them is when they’re ‘booming’ from the causeway between March and May.
If you’re lucky, you might see one sitting at the edge of the pools on frosty winter days but again, I was not in luck with rarities on this trip.
Elsewhere on the Leighton Moss reserve, though, there was plenty of bird, aquatic and animal action to be heard and seen.
Our first find was a large Common Frog sitting in the middle of the footpath only 200 metres from the visitor centre.
This splendid olive green-brown creature was unfazed, even when I tried to stroke it – and it took several attempts to get it back into the safety of the reeds before anybody stood on it.
Further along the main path there were numerous sightings of small birds in the bushes and trees with obliging nuthatches, marsh tits and blue tits posing for photographs.
This nuthatch returned to the same tree branch time and time again resulting in a crowd of snappers taking pictures on everything from mobile phones to expensive, top of the range cameras.
Further along the path, we dived inside Lilian’s Hide where the waterways were choc-a-bloc with ducks and waders with teal, shoveler and wigeon congregating in large numbers.
The late November light makes nature watching a real visual treat on a bright day at this time of year with the oranges and rusty browns of the reedbeds and vegetation glowing in the shimmering sunshine.
Further back near the skyline a marsh harrier flew along the wetland’s pastures looking for easy pickings.
These splendid raptors have been one of the success stories at Leighton Moss in recent years.
I’m told that if you continue along to the saltmarsh at the Allen and Eric Morecambe pools, there’s also a good chance of seeing wintering peregrines and merlins.
Over by the Grisedale Hide, a group of young male red deer were practicing in time for next year’s rut, locking antlers and ‘play jousting’.
These striking mammals are fascinating to watch but I wouldn’t want to get too close to those antlers!
A couple of bored females looked on, unimpressed by their antics, sunning themselves in the autumn sunshine.
This year’s deer rut may be over but the young males are intent on learning a few tricks for next year’s season.
Flotillas and winter ducks
There’s plenty to please visitors to Leighton Moss – with something for everyone from the specialist birder to families and day trippers visiting the North West of England.
We watched as a flotilla of mute swans passed by regally – until the male started his ‘splash and dash’ display in front of the females.
An army of wigeon was ready to hunker down for the winter, a sensible plan given the threat of severe weather warnings on the way in the coming week.
Wigeon always remind me of winter – many of these birds fly into the UK from Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia in the autumn and stay until spring.
Their distinctive chestnut brown heads, mottled plumage and signature creamy gold head stripe make the flocks easy to spot from a distance, with or without a telescope.
By now dusk was starting to approach so it was time to head up to the starling display, which turned out to be the highlight of the whole trip.
Leighton Moss has a sensational selection of wildlife, but for me the humble starling is the bird that makes a visit here really special.
Watching thousands of starlings in one of Britain’s best wildlife spectacles will put a smile on your face and the ‘wow’ factor into your nature watching.
Book your ringside seat now for the ‘starling show’ of the winter!
Tammy’s top nature tips
Leighton Moss nature reserve and visitor centre is open daily all year (except 25 December). The reserve is open from dawn to dusk and the visitor centre from 9.30 am to 5 pm (to 4.30 pm during December and January).
The reserve is located near Silverdale in northern Lancashire not far from Carnforth and Morecambe Bay.
Admission to the reserve’s hides and nature trails costs £5 for adults (£3 concessions), £1 for children or £10 for a family ticket. RSPB members get free admission as do those who come by public transport or on bike.
Don’t forget to grab a copy of the reserve leaflet and guided map to make the most of your visit.
When we visited, the best views of the starlings were from the Public or Lower Hides from about 16:00, but the timings and exact location can change daily. Check at the welcome desk for up to date information when you arrive at the reserve. The starling spectacle usually happens some time between 15:00-17:00.
If you can’t get to Leighton Moss, wherever you live in the UK, there’s almost certainly a starling show somewhere near your home.
- The largest starling roost in the UK is at Westhay on the Somerset Levels where there can be as many as eight million birds in winter.
Other good places to watch the spectacle are Ham Wall in Somerset, Hinton near Slimbridge (Gloucestershire), Minsmere, Slapton Ley, Camrose (west Wales) and Brighton’s old West Pier.
Bittern lovers can hear this rare bird ‘booming’ from the Leighton Moss causeway between March and May. Scan over the reedbeds and you may catch a glimpse of one in flight – particularly in May and June. You may also see one sitting at the edge of the pools on frosty winter days.
During spring and summer look out for avocets on the Allen and Eric Morecambe Pools, another seasonal treat.
Other good bird watching places nearby includes South Walney Island reserve, Morecambe Bay and Martin Mere Wetlands.
Photos – courtesy of Tony van Diesel.