Two decades ago, the winter starlings were so numerous and such a problem in Sheffield city centre that buildings were netted and roosting sites such as ledges were spiked.
Gathering firstly at pre-roosts across the region, the birds were heading en masse to the urban heat island.
Trees in the squares and along streets were thronged and suitable buildings were sought out for safe, warm night-time roosts. I recall massive starling flocks at Killamarsh, at Catcliffe Flash, and especially on the islands of the lake at Hillsborough Park. However, those heady days and nights have long since gone and the poor old starling has declined in numbers. The fall has been in part at least, attributed to the drainage of moors and bogs and the loss of unimproved, wet grasslands, all vital habitat for craneflies or leatherjackets.
These insects, (troublesome to the gardener), are essential rich food for young starlings in the middle of summer. It also seems that the greater starling gatherings have moved southwards, perhaps associated in some way with changed climate and weather. Today, famous roosts occur on the Somerset Levels and are major tourist attractions, though perhaps not this winter because of the floods.
However, the great news for this year is that our wintering starlings are back and big time.
I noticed good numbers from the middle of summer onwards and through the autumn the population grew steadily. Now, out at Middleton Moor above Wardlow, there is an enormous ‘murmuration’ as birds come in from mid to late afternoon onwards, and drop into reedbeds in the old tailings lagoons once managed by Laporte industries.
Dr Paul Ardron has estimated up to 500,000 birds and this is proving a wildlife spectacular for hundreds of excited visitors. You can actually see the smaller flocks of birds arriving over a wide area to the south and west of Stony Middleton right through the afternoon. If you do go, then please do not approach too close and disturb the birds, and both children and dogs should behave appropriately.
Remember that this is private land so no climbing on fences or onto stone walls as we want to foster goodwill with farmers and other landowners!
For your diary, you are welcome to join the Gleadless Valley Wildlife Trust and me for a late winter ramble on Sunday, February 9, at 10.30 am, meeting by the bridge to Newfield School (Lees Hall Road / Woodland Road). This will be two to three hours of a gentle stroll and chance to see local winter birds and other wildlife, and even a few spring flowers might be out.
Everyone is welcome and families with children too. Dress warm and weatherproof and wear stout footwear. I hope to see you there.
n Professor Ian D Rotherham, researcher, writer and broadcaster on wildlife and environmental issues, is contactable on firstname.lastname@example.org; follow Ian’s Walk on the Wildside, UKEconet for more information.