Brockholes Nature Reserve, located just outside Preston and right next to the River Ribble, was built on the site of a quarry and opened in 2011. It is a good spot for birdwatchers, featuring both woodland and lake habitat; you might even spot a roe deer if you’re lucky. When I went down there yesterday afternoon, the usual birds were about: swans and a grey heron on the Meadow Lake, great tits on the bird tables, a robin keeping its head down in the reeds. There were also some wooden sculptures of characters from The Wind in the Willows, which had been added since my last visit. My main aim for going that day, however, was the hope of seeing a starling murmuration.
Well publicised on TV, starling murmurations have become one of the UK’s best known wildlife spectacles. During the winter months, the UK population of starlings increases as birds migrate here from colder parts of Europe. At dusk, thousands of starlings come together at their communal roost sites, forming huge flocks that offer safety in numbers against predators. Such spectacles create the impression that starlings are not a conservation priority, but in fact the UK population is estimated to have fallen by four-fifths since the late 1970s, possibly due to farming practices reducing the availability of the invertebrates they eat.
As the daylight began to fade, I chose a spot looking over a large lake called the Number One Pit. Behind me, across the road, I also had a view of Brockholes’s floating Visitor Village on the Meadow Lake, just in case the starlings decided to turn up there. Of course, seeing a large flock displaying in the sky was not guaranteed. But at 3:20pm, a small group of starlings suddenly appeared over the Pit, closely followed by another. As they began converging, I experienced the thrill that wildlife-watchers get when they realise today is going to be a lucky day.
The murmuration grew very quickly, hovering over the woodland on the far side of the lake. Its visibility fluctuated, the starlings becoming less obvious against the overcast sky whenever they dispersed a little. At first, they formed a long, serpentine pattern that stretched across to the M6 motorway; but as more starlings arrived, the murmuration converged into a more visible ball. The most interesting patterns formed when another bird, possibly a crow, made an approach: the murmuration fluctuated, bulged on either side and split in two, with one sub-flock quickly moving to catch up with the other. The display went on for a good long while: at one point, I thought it was over when the starlings suddenly ducked below the trees, but it must have been a response to another disturbance because they soon rose again. Finally, with the sky getting murkier, the flock began shrinking, skimming the trees with fewer starlings coming back up each time. Then, at around 3:55, the last of them ducked down, and nothing more was to be seen. It had been a cracker, all right.
If you would like to see something like this, check out Starlings in the UK for known roost sites and useful information.