TWITCHERS who descend on Somerset to watch thousands of starlings in 'murmurations' are being asked to stay away this year.

Hundreds of people at a time usually visit Ham Wall and Avalon Marshes to watch large flocks of the birds fly in swooping, co-ordinated patterns.

The natural phenomenon takes place between October and March every year.

The Somerset Levels normally welcomes visitors from far afield to watch the incredible sight.

But the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is keen to keep the numbers down this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

An RSPB spokesperson said: "It is with great sadness that this year, for the safety of all our visitors, staff and volunteers, we ask that our visitors please try to visit alternative starling roost sites if possible before choosing to visit us at the Avalon Marshes or RSPB Ham Wall.

"While we’d love to welcome you, the government guidelines on social distancing measures and maximum gathering sizes mean we cannot safely accommodate the usual large numbers of people who visit us in the late afternoon and early evening for starlings."

They added: "If the Avalon Marshes roost is your local roost, we ask that you plan your visit carefully and avoid disappointment by reading our guidelines."

The RSPB's Becca Smith told the BBC: "The starling season hasn't got going yet, but we've already had a fair number of visitors turn out.

"So we are asking for people to try and find alternative sites to the entire Avalon Marshes site if it is not their local roost."

Ms Smith added: "Our busiest times are weekends and Christmas time.

"So we're urging visitors to try a morning roost instead at dawn, which is surprisingly late in winter, and weekdays."

It is believed starling murmurations offer the birds safety in numbers against predators, helps keep them warm and enables them to exchange information such as good feeding areas.