On the way home from Point Reyes last weekend, Neptune Bangdel saw a flash of black swirl across the evening sky.
“I had to watch it,” said the resident of the Marinwood neighborhood of San Rafael. “I took the first right and stopped my car.”
A murmuration of starlings whirled above Bangdel as she stood alone on a dead-end street near Highway 101 and watched the birds for about 15 minutes before they disappeared.
But word of the murmuration spread quickly. With each day, more birdwatchers, families, nature lovers and even “viewing parties” arrive from all over the Bay Area to witness the starlings do their thing.
A murmuration involves hundreds or thousands of starlings gathering and flying around in mesmerizing waves. Though not fully understood by scientists, murmurations typically take place in the cold months of winter, likely for warmth and protection—in fact, a hawk will occasionally dive at the murmuration causing a giant hole to open in the flock.
While murmurations are somewhat common in parts of England and other areas around the world, you have to get lucky to see one in the Bay Area.
Some days, the dance involves one huge group, while at other times, the birds break into smaller groups, and then on some days, the birds don’t murmurate at all.
And after a week or so, the murmuration disappears.
Catch this rare air show in the North Bay while you can! #murmuration @VisitMarin pic.twitter.com/lpjCcg1Sv0— Maryann Jones Thompson (@mjt_sf) February 4, 2023
First-timers who gathered Friday night were worried that the misty, gray skies might have sent the starlings packing for the season. But at 5:06 p.m., a "Close Encounters"-sized whirring circle of flying objects moved slowly across the sky overhead.
After seconds, the huge formation split in two, then split again, then began to head off in different directions over the nearby hills, creating shapes and waves on the way—not unlike a scene from the Spielberg classic—in an avian blockbuster that continued for the next twenty minutes.
"Friday night was the best display yet!" said Sara Frack, a resident of nearby Lucas Valley who posted directions to the murmuration on Nextdoor and has been watching the flock get bigger with each day.
Neptune Bangle had seen the San Rafael murmuration two years ago when the starlings did their dance above a cemetery near the Northgate Mall, a few minutes south. Neighbors say this Marin murmuration has been large enough to notice for at least three years, maybe longer.
This year, the murmuration takes place above the open-air parking lot for Kaiser Permanente just off the Lucas Valley exit from Highway 101 in San Rafael. Thoughtfully, the starlings are performing where there is plenty of parking for spectators. The show starts around 5 p.m. and lasts for about 15-20 minutes.
Like rushing water [sound on] pic.twitter.com/sRlyfOkgtN— Maryann Jones Thompson (@mjt_sf) February 4, 2023
Sara Frack recommended staying after the show to walk along the side or behind the parking structure across the street where the starlings settle in the trees for the night.
“It sounds like a roaring river, but it's actually the sound of thousands of birds,” she said. “Think twice before you walk under the trees—there’s a good chance you’ll get pooped on!”
How to See the Murmuration in Marin: The Lucas Valley/Smith Ranch Road exit from Highway 101 is approximately 20 minutes north of San Francisco. Set your navigation to 1650 Los Gamos Dr., San Rafael. Be there at 5 p.m.—don't be late! And yes, there will be poop—but they're starlings, not seagulls. Need dinner? Order ahead to grab one of Soleil Ho's favorites, Lou's Takeaway (only Tuesday-Friday) or hit the North Bay branch of SF brewery, Monk's Kettle, or famed ramen shop, Menya Shono.
Maryann Jones Thompson can be reached at [email protected]