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The piercing beauty of the murmurs of starlings

It was an evening in late February 2020 and I was in the marshes of Friesland, a province in the north of the Netherlands. Above my head, hundreds of thousands of starlings swirled, dipped and dipped dramatically, blackening the sky.

The sound of their wings echoed in the air, creating winds on the surface of the calm water.

The piercing scene was the culmination of three years I had spent tracking European starlings along their migration routes across the continent.

My only companion that night was a stranger who had also stopped to watch the birds – an elderly woman who witnessed the incredible spectacle for almost half an hour.

After the birds had settled into the large reedbeds, she turned to me with tears in her eyes. “It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my entire life,” she said.

I had to agree with her.

After a 25-year international career photographing many of the world’s most famous musicians and actors, I recently returned to the landscape of my childhood in southern Denmark to photograph a visual phenomenon I witnessed for the first time when I was a kid.

I started by photographing the large starling murmurs that occur in the northern parts of the Wadden Sea, a coastal wetland environment – the world’s largest unbroken system of intertidal sands and mudflats, according to its listing in the UNESCO World Heritage Site – stretching from the northern coasts of the Netherlands and Germany to the marshes of southern Denmark.

Here, each spring and autumn, the sky comes alive with the whirling spectacles of hundreds of thousands of starlings – an event known locally as the “soil spell” or “black sun” – during their seasonal migrations.

Later, I extended the scope of my photographic investigation to include Rome, England, the Netherlands, Ireland, and Catalonia, a region in northeastern Spain.

There is no single, definitive explanation for why starlings whisper, although most scientists believe this behavior helps protect birds from predators. (Another possible explanation is that whispers may help starlings warm up in the evening by recruiting larger perches.) Moving in tandem as one large entity both confuses predators and reduces the risk to each individual bird, a phenomenon called the “dilution effect”. ”

Most of the dramatic performances I have witnessed have occurred when one or more hawks or sparrowhawks attack the flocks of starlings.

What’s harder to explain, however, is how birds are able to move in such close proximity, with their movements so closely coordinated. Studies have shown that each starling responds to six or seven of its nearest neighbors, a number that seems to optimize the balance between group cohesion and individual effort.

As is the case with the movement of schools of fish and swarms of midges, the movement of starlings exhibits characteristics of what is called scale-free behavioral correlation, meaning that a change in state of a single starling can affect – and be affected by – every other starling in the flock, regardless of flock size.

In creating this series of images, I was inspired by a number of other art forms, including classical landscape painting, calligraphy and Japanese prints. I was also inspired by the birds themselves.

When starlings move as one unified organism and assert themselves against the sky, they create a strong visual expression, like that of a calligraphic brushstroke. Lines and shapes emerge in the swarm, giving life to physical abstractions and reminiscent of the patterns formed by interfering waves.

The graphic and organic forms of the starlings’ murmurs range from meditative to highly dramatic as they perform a breathtaking ballet, with life and death consequences.

Sometimes the herd seems to possess the cohesive power of superfluids, changing shape in an endless stream.

From geometric to organic, from solid to fluid, from material to ethereal, from reality to dream: this is the moment I try to capture — a simple fragment of eternity.

Soren Solkaer is a Danish photographer. His most recent book, “Black Sun,” features over 100 photographs of starling murmurations. You can follow his work on Facebook and instagram.


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