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Filming the starling murmurations of Aberystwyth

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Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 09:50 UK time, Thursday, 18 November 2010

Guest blogger: Autumnwatch cameraman Lindsay McCrae on his experiences filming the starlings of Aberystwyth pier.

I thought nothing could top a week watching massive sea eagles soaring against the scree-covered mountains during this year's Autumnwatch. However, a few little speckled birds and a bit of autumn light changed everything...

starlings leaving roost at dawn

We arrived a few nights before and saw the starlings leaving the roost at dawn.

Starlings roost together from late autumn right through the winter, but to get the shots we were after we needed to be able to guarantee seeing the birds finish for the day. Reed beds are a favourite for roosts but throughout the season the murmurations move around too much for us to be sure our remote cameras were in the right place. So a pier where the birds line up along the structure was a much more reliable bet.

I arrived in Aberystwyth along with wildlife cameraman Pete McCowen and minicam guru Nigel Bean hoping to film inside the roost for a couple of evenings and get a unique view of this tremendous seasonal spectacle.

Lindsay heads down through the hatch into the starling roost

Me heading down through the hatch.

On Saturday morning we gained access through a small room and trap door onto a gantry under the pier. With the birds having left for the day there was no risk of us spooking them. Evidence of their presence however was more than obvious: literally all the metalwork was drowned in droppings from years of roosting. An awesome sight!

The sub structures of the pier are drowned in guano.

Rigging such expensive cameras in a place like this was a little worrying, but what we expected to get would more than make up for that. Forgetting the unhygienic conditions, this was quite a nice spot to place minicams: a solid structure to attach them to which is protected from the weather and all just feet from where we could monitor them.

Starlings filling the sky

The starlings filled the sky above Aberystwyth pier.

As the sun began to drop, Chris and the team started filming the birds arriving from the pier. The light was unreal and the birds were appearing in masses from everywhere. It was fantastic! Nigel was inside monitoring the minicams ready for when the birds began to roost so we had to be quick filming the piece with the starlings up above.

As they got lower and lower they filled the sky and the whole crew were hypnotized. All of a sudden the birds began to drop out the air as if they'd been shot. A constant stream followed as they piled in to roost. The noise was incredible.

Starling shoot - Chris Packham being filmed against the murmurations at sunset

Chris being filmed above the pier as the starlings swarmed in.

Nigel was inside monitoring the roost minicams so we dashed in to capture the action as the starlings were still restless. What we witnessed was something very few people had seen before, let alone filmed.

Watching them jostling for positions, gossiping between each other and mimicking other bird species was fascinating. Even for our expert, Chris Feare, this intimate view opened a whole new world of behaviour he'd never seen.

Having spent a few hours filming the birds settling down, we started to pack up for the evening. Moving a few camera cases I spotted a small hole in one of the floor boards. As I lay down and put my eye to the hole I was glared at by a line of starlings less that five inches from me.

Weird as it may sound lying face down on a dirty, wooden floor staring through a small hole 60ft above the water was the perfect end to an amazing evening.


  • Comment number 1.

    This is going to be such a jaw dropping sequence tonight! Over a few decades I've been privileged to watch stunning murmurations of Starlings in various places but never seen the resultant roosting, I am so looking forward to this. Looks like you were blest with a great sunset for the final shots. My early, but nevertheless fullsome, thanks to Lindsay and the whole team for all the hard work for this episode and all the AW filming. This year's footage has been outstanding, and these great Blogs have kept us wonderfully updated. Thanks AW!

  • Comment number 2.

    Cannot wait!! Seriously excited by the prospect - and one day I really hope I can see it for real myself.

  • Comment number 3.

    Great insight Lindsay - thanks! Looking forward to seeing the results.

  • Comment number 4.

    i knewn you would be going to aberystwyth, its amazing to see, i was a student there and learnt very quickly not to park your car there in the evening!!!!

    its more amazing to watch, when your on the beach, with your mates, with bottle of cold cider, and an old barbecue to roast marshmallows on, and all wrapped up in warm coats, hats, gloves and scavres, and watching the sho-sha-shes at night(thats shooting star, spoken really, really fast) xx

  • Comment number 5.

    I was lucky enough to live in the building right opposite the pier in my final year of university. In the roof above the offices there are student diggs and my room looked directly over the front straight above the pier entrance. The windows were single glazed and rotting but when you sat on the sills and watched the starlings coming in it really didn't matter.

    You could here their rush as they poured over the roof tiles, that's one of the best ways to wake up and I will never forget it. I got very attached to them and their antics around on the roof outside my window. Spoke to them daily with my tea and fed them Jammy dodgers. I have some beautiful photos but I'm struggling to get them off of my camera.

    Thank you guys for filming the sequence it really took me back to that time.
    p.s. There was a nesting pair of birds of prey that I alwasy thought were sparrow hawks. They hunted over the town usually over near the school of Art. Always wondered what they were?
    p.p.s. I do hope you visited the Red Kite sanctuary and the butterfly house while you were in the area.

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

    in the early nineteen hundreds, starlings had declined so much that they were expected to become extinct.

    At Riddlesworth Hall School in Norfolk there is a case of avian oddities in the one of the cases of stuffed birds, such as a white crow and if I remember a pink Jackdaw and a starling!

  • Comment number 8.

    Reply to Jomolopo's question re Aber pier/starlings/raptors. They were a nesting pair of peregrines, after the starlings!

  • Comment number 9.

    Having just watched the xmas watch which showed the starlings under the pier at Aberystwyth it took me back to the early 90's when I worked in the Pier and lived opposite above the Cafe. What a job we had to get home if we finished at tea time lol. But it was wonderful to watch the fantastic displays. One of my better memories from Aber.


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