Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Photographing Starlings

A flock of starlings gather over the derelict West Pier in Brighton.
Photographer: Mike Hewitt/Getty

Even as an ardent birdwatcher, I'll confess that a single starling is a rather drab sight. But you can capture stunning images of starlings if you see them in a new light. In summer, the drabness of their dark plumage melts away to reveal an iridescent show of greens and purples. In winter, the birds a completely different look as the plumage becomes spangled with white spots.

In my opinion, the best way to see starlings is just before dusk when flocks – known as murmurations – gather in autumn and winter skies for one of our most celebrated wildlife spectacles. Sometimes up to 1 million birds - from a radius of 20 miles - join vast flocks that twist and turn against the fading light, creating a pageant of ephemeral, ever-changing patterns - like smoke on a breeze.

Many of the birds will have travelled to the UK from Scandinavia, or even Russia, to join starlings that have nested in the UK. Starlings gather in huge flocks to spend the night in safety in reedbeds, or on buildings, such as Brighton pier. It's always been a slight mystery to me why these birds put on such a prominent display before roosting for the night. The primary aim of creating a large flock is to confuse predators, such as peregrine falcons or sparrowhawks: so, why do starlings advertise their presence so obviously?

The ecologist in me says they are probably encouraging others into the roost site, creating an ecological advantage for the starling's survival. However, my fun-loving side yearns to believe that starlings put on a Red Arrows show just because they can.

These spectacles happen at specific sites across the UK from October to early spring, allowing anyone with a camera, or even a mobile phone to capture an impression of this aerial ballet. However your image will strip away most of the sensations that you felt at the time; the chattering of a million calling birds; frost nipping at your nose and toes; or perhaps the scent of distant bonfires.

So how do you create an image that best captures the impressions of the event? Firstly, think about the location. Try to position yourself on the eastern side of the action. As the sun sets in the west, standing facing the sunset will allow you to include the sun, or sunlit clouds, as a backdrop for your composition. Even on a cloudy day, the light in this part of the sky will be brighter and will last for longer after sunset.

Think about how you frame your picture; including a distant church spire; a line of trees; or some other feature on the horizon will lend your picture a sense of scale and also a sense of location. You could also include other spectators for added human interest. Consider whether you want to capture a single image or create a sequence of pictures. Locking the camera on a tripod could enable you to take a set of pictures with the same framing. Including the same foreground while capturing the different patterns of the swirling flocks is one way of trying to describe the choreography of these.

Photographers with a little more technical know-how might want to create more impressionistic images. You have a choice where you can use a fast shutter speed to freeze each bird or use a slow one, allowing the movement of each bird to register as a streak across the frame.

However you choose to capture the event, be sure to take a few minutes to soak up the atmosphere of the event before the birds tumble from the sky and settle down for the night.

Grahame Madge: 'Flocks of starlings make for spectacular photographs' in the Guardian, 1 November 2010

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