In search of starlings at Glastonbury and Aberystwyth

Starlings, Avalon marshes, Somerset
Starlings, Avalon marshes, Somerset

Last weekend Jane and I headed off to Glastonbury for a few days. It’s an unreal place. If ever you needed to visit a personal transformation coach, an angelic reiki practitioner or a shamanic hairdresser, make for Glastonbury. It would be easy to sneer at the apparent pretentiousness of it all, but that would be unfair. While there may be some charlatans involved, I’m sure many of these people are quite genuine in their thinking; and I sometimes think how comfortable it must be to live according to a ready-made belief system. It was curious to note the vigorous campaign for the retention of the last remaining bank (Barclays, if I remember correctly….) in the town, though.

An extensive area of former peat workings near Glastonbury has been reclaimed to create a cluster of wetlands and reedbeds, now known as the Avalon Marshes. These are home to several rare bird species, notably bittern and great white egret. The latter was fairly prominent at the Ham Wall RSPB reserve, and I photographed one on a beautiful, still, winter’s morning with warm light and a hint of frost on the ground. The former lived up to its reputation for skulking. But arguably the biggest  draw on the Avalon Marshes in winter is its huge starling roost, which I spent three evenings trying to capture. For roosting, the birds have a very large area to choose from, and they can move from one site to another on a daily basis. Even the local birders and photographers admit to being unable to predict what they are likely to do next. On my first visit I found a likely looking foreground at sunset and hoped a flock would fill the sky with interesting shapes. Needless to say it didn’t work out how I had hoped, but there was the above; I’m not sure yet if the image works or not.

On the second night, from a different location,  I watched as huge flocks gathered over farmland and in trees to the east against a dull background; and later, with mounting disbelief, as a continuous stream of starlings moved from one section of reedbed to another. The process lasted some 15 – 20 minutes; there must have been millions of birds altogether. But it was a frustrating encounter;  they flew too low over the ground to photograph successfully. On the third night I sought out the trees where they had gathered the previous evening but again the results were disappointing.

Starlings at Aberystwyth
Starlings at Aberystwyth

Back in Aberystwyth,  decent sunsets have encouraged me to visit the starling roost three times this week. Tuesday was just the most gorgeous winter evening; cloud had largely cleared during the afternoon and there was no wind. The starlings must have felt it too. For a few brief moments a flock briefly indulged in one of their spectacular ribbon/bracelet formations before dropping in under the pier. At last! Something to write home about……

For the last couple of months my camera bag might have been a door stop for all the use it has had, so it was good to pick up the camera again….. even if I could barely remember what some of its buttons were for! But the experience did remind me how important it is to be familiar with the controls of your equipment. A few seconds delay and confusion can mean the difference between getting the shot and missing it. And which shutter speed would blur the movement of birds in flight most successfully? I just couldn’t remember. But there is one thing about trying to photograph wildlife – it teaches you patience.

 

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Starling monster over Aberystwyth. Or….The Gift (part two)

Starlings over Aberystwyth
Starlings over Aberystwyth

On bright winter evenings (see also this post, this post, and this post) I often go down to the sea-front at Aberystwyth with the aim of photographing the starlings which roost under the pier . It’s been almost three years since I’ve come back with any worthwhile results, though. For that long, as far as I know,  the starlings had done nothing remotely like the spectacular pre-roost displays which they are renowned for. At first there was a fairly acceptable theory circulating amongst the photographers and birders.  The birds would be too busy simply surviving during mid-winter to spend valuable time and energy tearing around over the town at dusk. The fact that their most spectacular displays in recent years had been during the longer days of early March tended to support this idea. It was thought that the displays might be part of a process culminating in their exodus later in the month towards their breeding grounds further north. The presence of a predator (like a peregrine) was believed to precipitate avoidance behaviour which looked sensational to us but was actually self-preservation for the starlings. But last winter – nothing. And until last Saturday – nothing this winter either. All very frustrating and it wasn’t just me that was disillusioned either.

It wasn’t the greatest of evenings last Saturday and I almost stayed at home. On arrival at the wooden jetty I found the usual gaggle of photographers and sightseers. I met a fellow photographer and began to gossip about this and that and bemoan the lack of starling activity. The birds seemed to be following their usual routine. The earliest arrivals flew around silently together for a while before diving down amongst the framework of the pier and starting to chatter. Subsequent arrivals presumably heard them chattering and followed them in in a fairly disorganised fashion. I was on the point of leaving when the birds deserted the roost and began circling around over the town. There followed a spectacular exhibition of flight lasting more than ten minutes, flocks rapidly splitting and re-grouping, forming three-dimensional ribbons, ovals and swirls which constantly morphed into each other. It was exhilarating to see it after so long; I expect the word “wow” might have been heard and a broad grin seen.

More starlings
More starlings

About eight minutes past five the display was over.  I shook hands with Si and we went our separate ways. I had loaded my gear back into the nearby van when I noticed that some of the birds had left the pier and were again swirling around. By this time it was far too dark to think about using the camera but I wandered back over to enjoy a short encore.  Back on the prom I met another friend who had watched the display from a distance. We agreed how lucky we were to live at Aberystwyth and be able to see such an awe-inspiring exhibition. “It’s a gift.” she said, “I don’t usually believe in that hippy bollox but this is an exception”.

Speaking as the photographer who is never quite satisfied, though, I’ll add that it was a shame they were displaying over the town rather than the pier itself. The birds’ backdrop was a darker section of the post-sunset sky than it would otherwise have been. This necessitated a step-by-step increase in the ISO rating and opening up of the aperture. 3200 ISO and f4 seemed a bit dodgy to me………. Back home, though, I found that the images are noisy at 100% but I have  some usable results even at those settings. In the days of film such images would have been virtually unobtainable.

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This is what we’re here for!

Starlings entering roost site, near Gretna Green.
Starlings entering roost site, near Gretna Green.

After a quiet Christmas at home, Jane and I started out on a journey that would eventually take us as far as Stranraer for a New Year reunion with some old friends. I had planned some bird-photography-related visits en route; it would be difficult to pass through Gretna Green in late afternoon – on a sunny day – without trying to locate probably the most well-known starling roost in the UK!

Research on the internet had told me that it was now no longer at Gretna itself but a couple of miles west near the village of Rigg. Some photographs had showed the site to be close to two parallel lines of electricity pylons so it wasn’t too difficult to find. One bird photographer was already in attendance and she said she believed she was in the best place to photograph the great gathering of birds. As sunset passed it became apparent that they were rather further away than she expected, and it was necessary to use my longest lens, the Tamron 150-600 zoom. By this time perhaps ten other photographers were present.

Birds certainly congregated and swirled around in very large numbers, but it was well past sunset before they began to form the amoeba-like formations which I had hoped for. I had increased my ISO to 3200 by this time, and shutter speeds were rather too long for comfort. At 4.25 p.m. there was a crescendo of shutter clicking as the starlings formed a funnel shape and tumbled down into a small forestry plantation. This was what we were all there for! Within 60 seconds the birds had gone and the whole event was over.

I decided that, as far as possible, I would use one of the electricity pylons to anchor the composition within the landscape. I felt that the large bird of prey (probably a buzzard) perched on top of it added an extra layer of interest to the image. As it turned out it was a good decision and it was not difficult to find the best couple of images from the sequence. Following some judicious cropping to create a square-format image, this is the one that immediately registered in my mind and stayed there. Fortunately the 1/320th second exposure was short enough to prevent bird movement being recorded on the sensor.