Ogling the recent viral video of a flock of starlings swooping and swirling about in a mesmerizing phenomenon known as murmuration (watch the stunning footage, shot by two tourists in Ireland, here) had me in a state of awe. So, I simply had to set out to uncover one of the best places for viewing the startling starling phenomenon firsthand (turns out that Somerset, England, is a hot-spot for just that). What's more, watching the video brought to mind two recent closer-to-home experiences of a similar ilk that unfold in the most unexpected of places, with two U.S. cities that are quite simply for the birds (well, in one case, for the bats!). For culture vultures that swoop in on these urban locales for the regular city-pleasing sights, bites, and cultural might, there’s one unexpected surprise: The opportunity to engage in entirely unique bird- and bat-watching tours. From a bat bridge in Austin to stellar big bird-viewing in the Big Apple, these wildlife encounters comprise surprising and offbeat ecotourism experiences to spice up the standard city tour.
Take in the Starling Spectacle in Somerset, England
The jaw-dropping aerodynamic aerobics of a huge cloud of starlings (flock size can vary from thousands to a hundred thousand) can easily be taken in from the Somerset region of England (some starling action there is pictured above). Most active between late autumn and February, the starlings “perform” twice daily (at sunset and sunrise), when the birds swarm together before settling down to roost in area trees. Best seen on the Somerset Levels, hot spots for viewing include the National Nature Reserves of Westhay Moor, Shapwick Heath, and RSPB Ham Wall – to find out where the starlings are at the moment, contact the Avalon Marshes Starling Hotline (you can email them at email@example.com). Somerset is situated just over 2 hours from London and Birningham or 1 hour from Cardiff by road or rail; the Bristol airport is just 30 minutes away, while the ferry docks at Southampton clock in at a 2.5-hour drive. www.visitsomerset.co.uk
Congress Avenue Bridge Bats Rule the Roost in Austin
Maybe bats are live music fans, because they sure come to rock ‘n roll-rich Austin in droves even larger than the fans who pour in for the city's major music festivals (like South by Southwest or Austin City Limits, to name the biggies). As a matter of fact, the crevices beneath the city’s Congress Avenue Bridge provides haven for North America’s largest urban bat colony, with some 1.5 million of them taking flight in a swarming black cloud each and every night, in season. The best viewings are around dusk between March and November (late July through mid-August are peak viewing), and there’s even a designated Bat Hot Line (512-416-5700) to advise curious spectators on the current flight times. In season, you’ll stand elbow to elbow on the Congress Avenue Bridge with a gaggle of gawkers eager to witness their emergence. What do locals think about these guests? They’ve come to welcome them, thanks to Austin’s bats hearty appetite: On any given night, they’ll gobble up a staggering 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of insects, like pesky mosquitoes and other agricultural pests. A fun alternative to taking in the visual spectacle from the bridge is via kayak, courtesy of Live Love Paddle, which offers guided kayak trips in season that'll get you out on Lady Bird Lake to witness the event up close and personal from an under-the-bridge vantage point ($38.50 person for tour, including use of kayak, paddles, life vest, and drinking water; www.livelovepaddle.com); tours will start up again come spring 2012.
The Big Apple Plays Host to a Surprisingly Big Bird Population
A native New Yorker, I’d come to accept that much of my city slicking wildlife viewing in these parts would be restricted to little more than a few wily squirrels and a few too many brazen subway rats. That was until this summer, when I came across the exceptional Audubon Sunset EcoCruises, departing right from downtown Manhattan at the South Street Seaport. The outings, led by an Audubon Society naturalist, are set aboard a NY Water Taxi, which plies the waters of New York Harbor, passing by little-known islets that provide a safe haven for a majestic population of migratory birds, including herons, ibises, cormorants, and egrets – a stunning contrast of imagery to take in, with the sunset-backed views of the city’s bridges and skyline offering a dramatic backdrop to the wildlife. The 1.5-hour tours leave at 7pm on Sundays from June through late August; book ahead for 2012 at www.nytours.us ($35 for adults, $25 for children ages 2 to 12). Can't wait till summer rolls around? The society also offers a Winter Seals and Waterbirds tour that takes in harbor seals and a surprising array of bird varieties (geese, loons, sandpipers, and ducks among them), many of which make way here from the Arctic for the winter season (2-hour tours sail at 2pm on Sunday, January 15, and Sunday, February 19; $35 for adults, $25 for children ages 2-12; www.nywatertaxi.com). Note that guides will also provide binoculars on loan to guests for both tour outings, which really optimizes the viewing experience.
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