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Starlings take over at Southwold
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Suffolk Wildlife Trust's Alan Miller explains why starlings flock to Southwold

By Richard Haugh
BBC Suffolk

Up to 250,000 starlings can be seen flying at Hen Reedbeds near Southwold on a nightly basis during winter.

The migratory birds seek a safe dwelling for the night and regularly stop traffic due to their sheer number and apparently synchronised flying.

Alan Miller from Suffolk Wildlife Trust says there's a simple reason for this.

"It's like when we drive - someone a mile ahead breaks and the ripple effect means the end of the queue reacts but doesn't know what originally happened."

Alan, who manages Suffolk Wildlife Trust's sites in the area, says the 2009 flock of 30,000 starlings at Hen Reedbeds is an impressive spectacle but he's concerned about the figure compared to previous years.

Starlings at Hen Reedbeds
Around 30,000 starlings fill the sky as they prepare to land at Hen Reedbeds

"We had a quarter of a million here one year," he said. "Which was fantastic.

"Starlings are becoming a concern in the UK though - their numbers have dropped massively."

The birds have been annual visitors near Southwold since 2003, two years after the site had been covered by reeds.

The habitat offers ideal protection from predators such as sparrowhawks and barn owls.

"Most of the birds here are feeding on the outdoor pig fields and will come from a 20 mile radius. There's obviously a system where they'll know that they follow in one direction to the favoured place to roost."

Starlings flattening the reed bed
The starlings gradually flatten the reed bed, losing their protection

Alan says there's probably only one flock of this size in the county at one time - with Lackford Lakes and Minsmere other favoured locations for the starlings to move on to.

Starlings are also a common site within urban areas, where they can generate warmth by roosting on man-made roofs and shelters.

Nightly entertainment

At Hen Reedbeds the spectacle for passing motorists begins shortly before dusk.

Flocks of 20 to 30 starlings arrive, merge and within 15 minutes, depending on the numbers, the skyline is dominated by gigantic swarms of birds flying in formation.

Alan says the starlings will stay in the air for as long as possible before landing on the reeds to settle for the night.

Starling
Starling (sturnus vulgaris) numbers are on the decline in the UK

Once there, the birds can be seen jostling for position. "It's the same old story," said Alan. "Nobody wants to be on the outside."

But after a while the reeds flatten due to the weight of the birds and the shelter is no longer there.

"Roosts can last for up to three months.

"It can build from mid-October to Christmas time and then suddenly they all vanish."




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