Winter is finally upon us; the days are shorter and there has been a biting nip to the air and some of us have even seen snow. However, it always begs the question where do the birds go when it gets dark.  During this two-part blog we will delve into the winter roosts that we are lucky enough to get here at Fairburn Ings. Lots of birds flock together both during the day and on an evening, this is primarily for safety in numbers, as each individual is safer from predators when in a flock and to keep warm on these chilly evenings. Firstly, we will focus on the species that roost on the coal tips.

Starling murmurations happen when thousands of birds flock together swirling and swooping making synchronized patterns in the sky, this must be one of the most iconic of roosts. Here at Fairburn it is estimated that we have had around 30,000 starlings flocking together. This congregation of birds is always attractive to birds of prey so keep an eagle eye out for sparrowhawk or peregrine both of which are regularly seen.

Starling Murmuration, Coal Tips – James Kearsley

Starlings are a migratory species and although some are resident all year round in the UK our native population is enhanced during the winter months by large scale immigration from continental Europe. The best place to view the roost is from the Roy Taylor Trail up on the coal tips overlooking the north and south lagoons. However, don’t be tricked into this spectacle and the sheer number of birds here, as the starling population has declined by more than 80% in recent years putting them on the UKs critical bird list which means they are a species most at risk. Back in 1960, for instance, as many as 120,000 birds were recorded roosting at Fairburn and on 7th December 1969 and an estimate of 900,000 birds were recorded passing over the site in a stream almost 2 miles long and 40 yards wide.

Another species that has chosen Fairburn as a roosting hotspot is the goosander. These ducks are a member of the sawbill family and although they breed in areas of Yorkshire, they only visit Fairburn Ings during the winter months. Easy to identify as they are large and long bodied; males are prominently white with a black head and glossy green upper neck. Females have a greyish body, rusty brown head and neck with a white throat patch.  Like starlings, goosanders will gather at night for safety from predators and warmth.

Unlike Starlings the number of Goosanders roosting at Fairburn has rose from a maximum of 20 in 1960 up to 170 in 2019. Whilst waiting for the Starlings to appear look out for Goosander flying in formation to roost on the West Lagoon.  

Arrive early about 1-2 hours before the Starlings turn up, somewhere between 2 and 3pm, to witness the arrival of the Goosanders. Ideally you should be well wrapped up and a digital camera or mobile phone with a video function would be ideal if you wish to record your memories. Fairburn Ings Bird Group and ourselves at the RSPB are always pleased to receive your photos and videos. A torch can also be handy as it will be dark on the way back to the car park.

Goosanders- Nik Goulthorp

One bird family that has notably declined throughout the country are hirundines. Swallows and sand martins are summer visitors that gather in the autumn prior to their southward migration. Large numbers were once recorded here at Fairburn with high counts of 20,000 Sand Martins on 5th September 1974 and 200,000 Swallows on 16th September 1980. Between 1958 and 1970 ringing of hirundines took place at The Cut to the east of the reserve. This ringing programme recorded some interesting and valuable information back then as to how far individuals travelled. A swallow ringed at Fairburn on 31st August 1964 was recovered a year later on 28th November 1965 at Rosherville Dam, Johannesburg. Likewise, a Sand Martin ringed at Fairburn on 13th July 1958 was recovered on 22nd January 1959 in Alicante, Spain. The spectacular late summer roosts are now unfortunately a spectacle confined to the past.


Sand Martins- Trevor Boyer

It’s not just starlings and goosanders that have been recorded recently; across site we’ve had an array of different wildlife. A couple of first winter Caspian gulls were noted in the gull roost on Main Bay on 1st December along with 2 pintail and 16 shelduck. A female red-breasted merganser was sighted from Cut Lane on Village Bay on 27th November before flying off west. 12+ goosander were also noted here along with up to 22 great-crested grebes and 10 goldeneye. Kingfishers have been seen frequently both along Cut Lane and from the Kingfisher Screen. 2 nuthatch have been calling within Newfield Plantation on 29th November where 74 pink-footed geese flew over heading south. A black swan was seen flying west over the coal tips on 4th December along with a ringed-neck parakeet flying in the same direction on 23rd November. The Flashes have also produced sightings of 12+ curlew, a female stonechat, 2 little egret and 4 red kite on 2nd December. Up to 4 marsh harriers have been seen including a nice male around the flashes on 22nd November and a great white egret has can be seen daily on Spoonbill/New Flash. A ringtail hen harrier and a bittern were sighted from the Roy Taylor Trail on the lagoons on 30th November. Roe deer have been spotted in Moat field where a barn owl has been reported hunting at dusk. Finally, a weasel was spotted scurrying along the Riverbank Trail on 6th December.

Kingfisher- Brian Crosby

Please remember if you are visiting the site to see some of this amazing wildlife, follow all Government guidance around group size, social distancing and hygiene. If you are visiting Fairburn Ings to see our starling murmuration please note that as a natural phenomena we cannot guarantee this will happen on any given day. The reserve has been experiencing high numbers of visitors coming to see starlings during the weekend, so please you’re your visit and think about visiting during quieter times. 

Thank you.