The end of pier show

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It’s a sight that can stop traffic and bring locals and visitors to a standstill.

It’s a natural wonder of the bird world which makes ornithologists reach for the superlatives as they study the skies.

It’s free. You don’t need binoculars. Just an umbrella if stood beneath the whirling dervishes of the bird world. Starlings.

The daily pre-roost aerobatics bring wildlife photographers – we have Brian Rafferty of Preston to thank for these stunning images of starlings at North Pier – to Britain’s best resort time and again in pursuit of the perfect image.

Birdwatcher Brian also rates Blackpool’s glacial age-created Marton Mere for starling spotting too – having snapped some 60,000 birds heading for the reedbeds there in summer.

He says: “It’s a tremendous sight as they fill the sky – and the arrival of the raptors, a peregrine falcon and a couple of sparrowhawks looking for an easy meal – sent the starlings into some wonderful patterns as they tried to evade the attacks, before eventually plunging down to settle and spend the night safe.”

It’s a sight which – according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – is one of the most unsung, yet spectacular, shows to be seen in Blackpool each year.

Upwards of 100,000 starlings flying high, swooping low, wheeling, and twisting, and eventually roosting on and around or even beneath North Pier, weather and tide permitting. And to be seen every afternoon – at this time of year – as dusk falls.

It never ceases to astound those who study it. How do they manage such formations without crashing to the earth or sea? Why do they do it?

Blackpool delivers the second biggest starling murmurations – as these mass displays are known – in the North West.

That’s according to Hugo Charlton-Thomas, people engagement officer for Lancashire for the RSPB, who says it’s topped only by the displays at the society’s own Leighton Moss reserve on the county’s fringe.

Hugo is delivering several talks – between 1pm-3pm – this Sunday and the following Saturday on site at North Pier. Visitors and locals are urged to gather there from noon to 4pm, with cameras trained on the traditional end of pier roost (the theatre), while spotters gather in comparative comfort under cover at Costa Coffee. There’s the option to tread the boards, weather permitting, to the OTHER end of pier show.

What’s more, it’s part of the bedrock on which ornithologists and other interested parties – Blackpool Council among them – will begin to build Blackpool’s reputation as a birding capital.

The strident sturnus vulgaris – the European starling – is the swaggering yob of back gardens, and taken a bit for granted.

But as the RSPB’s annual Big Garden Bird Watch nears – January 28-29 – Hugo warns that starlings are in marked decline, and this is a bird which acts as a barometer to the natural world, the loss of habitat in particular. Bar their favoured roosts, the apparent sociability arising from being a favourite bird for predators to pick off, and you’ll find starlings are the commuters of the garden food belt, some of them foraging as far afield as 40km away.

“Starlings are beautiful birds and not to be taken lightly,” Hugo added. “We want to promote them as millions of people come to Blackpool, not for wildlife, yet you have this tremendous spectacle, murmurations of some 100,000 starlings.

“You also have the largest heronry in the region at Stanley Park, and some fantastic bird and other wildlife at Marton Mere – including long-eared owls.

“We’ve teamed up with Blackpool Council and North Pier Company to urge others to join us this Sunday and the next Saturday from noon to 4pm to watch this natural wonder. We’ve got events at Beacon Fell Country Park and at Witton Country Park, and also at Ribble Discovery Centre at Fairhaven Lake as part of the garden watch. We also work with Wyre Council, at Stanah, Rossall and Fleetwood.

“But the big push is to promote Blackpool in partnership with Blackpool Council and the local rangers, with RSPB events at Marton Mere, and, from the end of February, events at Stanley Park’s heronry. We’re putting Blackpool on the bird map – where it belongs.”

n For more on the Big Garden Bird Watch see; or for the starling watch call North Pier (01253) 623304.