It was late February evening in 2020 and I was standing in the swamplands of Friesland, a northern province of the Netherlands. Above my head, hundreds of thousands of starlings dramatically swirled, swooped and dived, blackening the sky.
The sound of their wings echoed through the air, creating wind patterns on the surface of the still water.
The transfix scene was the culmination of three years I’d spent tracking European starlings on their migratory routes across the continent.
My only companion that evening 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 in the great reed beds, she turned to me with tears in her eyes. “It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” she said.
I had to agree with her.
After a 25 year international career during which I have photographed 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 that I first experienced as a boy .
Go wild this winter
Nature is still amazing even in the cold. Time to get dressed and explore.
- Discover the winter wildlife: From great gray owls in Minnesota to bison in Florida, you have many opportunities to see animals in the wild.
- Encouraging encounters: Even if you’re not an experienced birder, hanging out with some Canada jays could do wonders for your spirits.
- Winter camping: For well-prepared adventurers, sleeping outdoors in the frigid elements has many benefits — and fewer crowds.
- Dog sledding in Maine: Crossing a frozen lake can be a dreamlike experience. Just think of the brakes – and no Instagram selfies.
I started by photographing the large starling murmurs that take place in the northern reaches of the Wadden Sea, a coastal wetland — the world’s largest uninterrupted system of tidal sands and tidal flats, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO — that stretches from northern shores the Netherlands and Germany to the marshes of southern Denmark.
Here, the sky comes alive every spring and fall with the whirling displays of hundreds of thousands of starlings – an event known locally as ‘Sorte Bol’ or ‘Black Sun’ – as the birds pass by on their seasonal migrations.
I later extended the reach of my photographic research to Rome, England, the Netherlands, Ireland and Catalonia, a region in north-eastern Spain.
There’s no clear explanation for why starlings murmur, although most scientists suspect the behavior helps protect the birds from predators. (Another possible explanation is that murmuration may help starlings stay warm in the evenings by recruiting larger roosts.) Moving in tandem as a single large unit confuses both predators and the risk to each individual bird, a Phenomenon called the “dilution effect”. ”
Most of the dramatic performances I witnessed occurred when one or more hawks or hawks charged the flocks of starlings.
More difficult to explain, however, is how the birds can move in such close proximity, with their movements so closely coordinated. Studies have found 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 with the movement of schools of fish and schools of mosquitoes, starling movement exhibits features of what is known as scale-free behavioral correlation, meaning that a change in state of an individual starling can affect and be affected by any other starling in the flock, regardless of flock size.
In creating this series of images, I was inspired by a variety of other art forms, including classic landscape painting, calligraphy, and Japanese woodblock prints. I was also inspired by the birds themselves.
When starlings move as a unified organism and assert themselves against the sky, they create a powerful visual expression, like that of a calligraphic brushstroke. Lines and shapes emerge within the swarm, bringing physical abstractions to life, reminiscent of the patterns formed by interfering waves.
The graphic and organic forms of the Starling murmurs range from the meditative to the highly dramatic as they perform a breathtaking ballet, one with life-or-death consequences.
At times, the herd seems to possess the cohesive power of superfluids, changing shape in an endless flow.
From geometric to organic, from solid to liquid, from material to ethereal, from reality to a dream: this is the moment I’m trying to capture – a mere fragment of eternity.
Soren Solkaer is a Danish photographer. his latest book “Black Sun,” contains more than 100 photographs of starling murmurs. You can continue to follow his work Facebook and Instagram.