It was a late February evening in 2020, and I was standing in the swamps of Friesland, a northern province in the Netherlands. Hundreds of thousands of starlings swirled, threw, and dived dramatically overhead, blackening the sky.
The sound of their wings echoed in the air, creating wind patterns on the surface of the still water.
The exciting scene was the culmination of the three years I spent following European starlings on their migration routes across the continent.
My only companion that night was a stranger who had also stopped watching the birds, an elderly woman who had witnessed the amazing spectacle for nearly half an hour.
As the birds settled into the large reed beds, she turned to me with tears in her eyes. “It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” she said.
I had to agree with her.
After a 25-year international career in filming 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 first saw as a boy.
I started by photographing the great starlings that occur in the northern parts of the Wadden Sea, a coastal humid environment – the world’s largest system of tidal sand and mud plains, according to the UNESCO World Heritage List – that stretches from the northern shores of the Netherlands. and Germany to the swamps of southern Denmark.
Here, every spring and autumn, the sky comes to life with the rotating images of hundreds of thousands of starlings – an event locally known as the “salt variety” or “black sun” – as birds go through their seasonal migrations.
I later expanded the scope of my photographic investigation to include Rome, England, the Netherlands, Ireland and Catalonia, a region in northeastern Spain.
There is no definite explanation for why starlings murmur, although most scientists theorize that the behavior helps protect birds from predators. (Another possible explanation is that murmurs can help starlings keep warm in the evening by gaining greater shelter.) Moving in tandem as a large creature simultaneously confuses predators and reduces the risk to each bird, a phenomenon called the “effect of dilution ‘. ”
Most of the dramatic performances I witnessed took place when one or more falcons or hawks attacked herds of starlings.
What is more difficult to explain, however, is how birds can move in such close proximity that their movements are so closely coordinated. Studies find that each starling corresponds to six or seven of its closest neighbors, a number that seems to optimize the balance between group cohesion and individual effort.
As is true with the movement of flocks of fish and swarms of flies, the movement of starlings shows characteristics of the so-called behavioral correlation without scale, which means that changes in the state of one starling can affect – and be affected by – any other starling in flock, regardless of herd size.
In creating this series of images, I was inspired by a number of other art forms, including classical landscape painting, calligraphy and Japanese engravings. I was also inspired by the birds themselves.
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When starlings move as a single organism and establish themselves against the sky, they create a strong visual expression, like that of a calligraphic brushstroke. Lines and shapes appear in the swarm, enliven physical abstractions, and evoke patterns formed by interfering waves.
The graphic and organic forms of starlings’ murmurs range from meditative to highly dramatic, while performing breathtaking ballet, with consequences for life and death.
Sometimes it seems that the herd has the cohesive power of superfluids, changing its shape into an endless stream.
From geometric to organic, from solid to liquid, from material to ethereal, from reality to dream: This is the moment I am trying to capture – a simple fragment of eternity.
Soren Solker is a Danish photographer. His latest book, “Black Sun,” includes more than 100 photos of starling muttering. You can follow his work Facebook and Instagram.