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Stunning photographs capture starlings migrating through Europe

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Swooping up from the reeds and wetlands of southern Denmark, a storm of starlings rains across the horizon. The cluster of birds looks like droplets of ink across a parchment canvas, sprayed across a dusky sky where they dive and twirl in unison. The birds fold like waves on a shoreline, contorting into abstract formations that loom across the marshes.

The phenomenon, known as a starling murmuration in English or “black sun” in Danish, lasts just minutes, or even seconds. But it left a lasting impression on Danish photographer Søren Solkær, who first witnessed the spectacle when he was 10 years old.

“At the time it was by far the wildest thing I had ever seen,” Solkær recalled.

Over the next 40 years, Solkær built a career as a portrait photographer, traveling the globe to snap iconic images of the world’s biggest rockstars — Amy Winehouse, Metallica, Paul McCartney, and Led Zeppelin, to name a few. But during a retrospective of his career in 2017, Solkær was inspired to try something new.

“The first thing that came to mind was starling murmurations … this big piece of calligraphy in the sky,” he told CNN. He began photographing the birds near his childhood home in southern Denmark, before following various flocks across Europe, from Ireland to Italy, on their migration trail.

Solkær’s latest photobook, “Starling,” published last month, charts this migration journey, and with it, he hopes to inspire a closer relationship with nature.

“One reason why it keeps captivating me is that every time it happens, it’s new, it’s unique. The shapes that appear in the sky happen only once in the history of the world,” he said. “I think that’s a very good reason to photograph them and to try to capture and share them with others.”

A sunset spectacle

Solkær first published images of starlings in his 2020 photobook “Black Sun,” describing it as “an investigation of where I come from, and dealing with those childhood memories.” After several seasons of photographing the birds near the Wadden Sea in Denmark and neighboring nations, Solkær decided to expand the scope of the project and follow the birds as they migrated across the continent.

European starlings can migrate as far north as the Arctic Circle in summer, and in winter, as far south as North Africa. It’s during these migrations that the murmurations are most common, although the exact reason behind them remains a mystery: a widely accepted theory is that starlings gather in these dense aerial formations before sunset to make themselves appear larger to predators. But scientists also suspect it may be to attract other starlings to the roost and generate warmth in the cold winters.

Hundreds, thousands, and even millions of starlings flock together in the murmurations, moving as one organism. - Søren Solkær
Hundreds, thousands, and even millions of starlings flock together in the murmurations, moving as one organism. - Søren Solkær

Using Instagram hashtags to locate where the murmurations were happening, Solkær chose his destinations based on the size of the flock and the presence of predators, like peregrine falcons, as the starlings make the most “beautiful, graphic shapes” when they are under attack. But even with the best-laid plans, nature is unpredictable.

“It’s so ephemeral: you can get five good pictures in half a minute, but then nothing for the next six weeks,” said Solkær. “It doesn’t happen every night. The really amazing formations normally happen once or twice during a winter.”

One of the largest winter populations settle in Rome, Italy. The urban landscape, as well as the southern evening light, provided a sharp contrast to Solkær’s work in the Danish marshes.

“It’s the same phenomenon but the light is much more golden, the sky’s very beautiful,” explained Solkær. While many of his previous shots of the murmurations used a monochrome aesthetic, he started to play with color, as well as including architecture in some images.

Rome also provided the perfect backdrop for Solkær to explore the relationship between wild and urban environments, through the city’s difficult relationship with the starlings.

In Rome, Solkær included architecture in his compositions. - Søren Solkær
In Rome, Solkær included architecture in his compositions. - Søren Solkær

“Rome spends a lot of money trying to scare the birds and get them out of the city, because they make a big mess,” he said, adding that the city hired a falconer to scare off the starlings.

Starlings have been a fixture in Rome since antiquity, though. “They used to think that the shapes and behavior of the starlings was the gods trying to communicate with humans,” explained Solkær. Diviners would read the auspicious signs, or bad omens, which influenced political decisions. Solkær draws on this history of mysticism, capturing a sense of awe with fantastical formations framed above the spires of ancient architecture against a backdrop of cotton-candy pastel clouds.

“It’s a very different experience from standing in a field in the middle of nowhere. But I think it’s equally magical — it even seems more surreal when you’re in the city, and watching the same thing happening. It doesn’t fit in so well, and that’s also what’s causing the big struggle between the city of Rome and the birds,” said Solkær.

From macro to micro

While starlings are often thought of as a common bird in Europe and North America, their numbers have been in decline for decades — falling 53% between 1995 and 2018 – and in the UK they are on the Red List of threatened species.

“There are a lot less birds now than they used to be,” Solkær said, pointing to the increasing use of land for agriculture, which has reduced the available food.

After the success of “Black Sun,” many biologists and ornithologists reached out to Solkær — inspiring him to not just look at starlings from a distance, but up close, too.

In collaboration with the University of Copenhagen, he produced two series of images shot through microscopes.

“They have really beautiful metallic feathers when you’re up close,” said Solkær. “I’ve tried to go from the big, macro world that I’ve seen in the sky, to seeing if I could find some of the same universal patterns if I went really, really close.”

One ornithologist — an octogenarian professor at the Museum of Natural History — provided Solkær with a taxidermized starling from the museum’s collection for him to photograph.

“I could see from the little tag attached to its leg that it had died in 1918 from flying into a lighthouse, (but it still) looked perfect,” said Solkær.

He photographed the bird under light and electron microscopes, magnifying the starling up to 12,000 times. The detailed images show the dense yet delicate feather strands, resembling map contours, palm fronds, and tree trunks, providing a striking contrast to his open-sky shots of the murmurations.

“The closer I went, the bigger it looked — like mountains and river deltas,” said Solkær.

A starling feather, magnified 1,500 times and photographed under a microscope. - Søren Solkær
A starling feather, magnified 1,500 times and photographed under a microscope. - Søren Solkær

The project has piqued Solkær’s interest in other conservation photography projects. He’s now embarking on a project about dragon blood trees, a rare species endemic to the island of Socotra, in the Indian Ocean, as well as a book about spirituality and nature in Bhutan, in South Asia.

“At this point, at least for me, it makes no sense to focus on rock stars,” he said. “I think it’s very necessary to communicate these stories now, and inspire a closer connection to nature.”

When it comes to birds, Solkær is considering other species for potential projects: dunlins, for example, a gray bird with a white underside that performs a similar aerial dance to starlings; or lurid green budgies in Australia, that contrast starkly with the red rocks of the outback and the stretching blue sky.

“I don’t think I will do another starling book,” said Solkær. But he pauses, catching himself: “Actually, I think in 10 days, I will go to Sardinia to photograph starlings. So who knows?”

Videos courtesy of Søren Solkær.

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