Photographer Søren Solkær describes the beginning of autumn in Denmark as everlasting. When the sky darkens at sunset, time stands still. But that imperishable moment is sometimes brought about by a phenomenon a little rarer than a setting sun: hundreds of thousands of starlings gathering to accentuate the inevitable darkness of nightfall in a flying formation called a whisper.
The Danes speak of a murmuration of “black sun”, which Solkær adopted as the title of his photo book devoted to European starlings. He started documenting them in Denmark in 2017 and has since traveled to England, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Catalonia in northern Spain to track their migration to southern Europe to the ‘autumn.
Solkær captures the most complex moments of their flight when freezing the movement of starlings using an extremely high ISO between 10,000 and 15,000. (ISO refers to the sensitivity of the camera’s sensor to light ; high ISOs allow photographers to capture darker environments while still being able to use a fast shutter speed.) Because twilight lasts so long this far north in summer and early fall, when the sun is seldom completely fixed, this is the only way Solkær can photograph the constantly changing structure of the herd. Of the 120 murmurs he documented, most lasted a few seconds and only about six lasted up to 30 minutes. “It’s quite rare to experience,” he says.
This most intricate and mysterious part of a whisper occurs when a predator enters the frame, which is almost impossible to see with the naked eye. Depending on the density of the herd and the speed of the predator, starlings’ reactions can take on many flight patterns, including flying outward to create a vacuole – an empty space. Or they could fly quickly in one direction, producing a pulse through the wave-like herd. “It is only when attacked by predators, especially hawks, that they create these amazing images in the sky,” Solkær explains.
The forms formed by the anxious flight of starlings for survival can also be used to confuse their predators. Each bird will mimic the movement of its nearest neighbors, pointing its back towards predators.
The whispers in all six places Solkær visited are similar, but the number of predators in parts of Europe will affect the variety of shapes Solkær can photograph. “There were a lot more falcons in Catalonia than in Denmark,” he says. “Which is a bad thing for the starlings, but it’s a very good thing for me, because as bad as it sounds I hope they get attacked.” This is when the visual action really happens. “
As lost in the moment as Solkær feels thanks to the fleeting nature of the whisper, he will never miss the opportunity to capture them. “Sometimes I come home with a thousand photos and I have no idea what I captured, because the birds move extremely fast. It is an organic form in constant evolution. ” he says. “It’s very, very beautiful.”
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