Starling Express

This week, I met with motor sports photographer, Alex Lawrence, in a busy Hove café, to take custody of the best telephoto lens in the world: none other than the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS USM Mark II. Equipped with a 4-stop image stabilizer and blisteringly fast autofocus, this lens can keep 200mph Formula One cars in perfect focus, no sweat. Optical quality is second to none; the glass produces razor sharp images, with negligible chromatic aberration and distortion. Alex brought along his newly purchased Canon EOS-1DX camera body, which attracted the attention of other customers in the best possible way. The camera uses two DIGIC 5+ processors to handle up to twelve 18 megapixel RAW images per second and a DIGIC 4 processor for autofocus/exposure calculations. The image quality is excellent; I've yet to handle a more technologically advanced and responsive camera. I should think so too, given the £5229 price tag! My Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III seems quaint and stately in comparison.

When I visited Brighton Pier on Tuesday, I was pleasantly surprised to be graced with the presence of migratory starlings very early on in comparison to last year. Starlings escape harsh winter weather on the European continent by visiting the relatively comfortable British Isles. They remain here until late February. Thirty minutes before sunset, the murmuration numbers about fifty birds; Fifteen minutes later, birds fly in from all parts of the city, swelling the murmuration to several thousand birds.

Alex and I met again on Thursday afternoon for a stroll along the seafront into Brighton. He brought along his Canon EOS-1DX and the beautiful lens I borrowed in July, the Canon EF 500mm f/4 L IS USM. His skills as an action motor sports photographer are easily transferable to wildlife; starlings move at 140mph slower than Formula One cars, but a similar action-based technique applies. In some ways, photographing starlings is more of a challenge, owing to their unpredictable changes in direction, sudden acceleration and deceleration and fluid movement. You can view Alex's starling photographs here.

Alex and I discussed why starlings form these bizarre murmurations before sunset. Starlings are the world's best synchronized fliers; each bird shadows seven of its neighbours. Starling murmurations react ten times faster than the best human pilots. As such, starlings can easily out-manoeuvre the Peregrine Falcon. Flight increases body temperature; when the starlings roost, their collective bodies act as a giant radiator throughout the long winter night. Starlings compete with one another for prime roosting locations; dominant males seek out the best places to spend the night, while juvenile males and all females are relegated to more exposed outer sleeping areas. I would recommend this video of starlings on Otmoor for breathtaking footage and informative commentary. I must book a holiday cottage near Otmoor and spend every afternoon photographing the six-figure starling murmurations.

I had the pleasant surprise of meeting Flickr contact John Nunney on Thursday afternoon, who had travelled down from Surrey, with his wife. I felt slightly sorry for him, as he had arrived late and didn't have much time to photograph the starlings. Unfortunately, we didn't speak for long, but I invited John to come down and join me again on the pier. It's best to arrive at the pier at least 30 minutes before sunset.

Finally, it is lovely to combine photography with socialising. I have met several of my Flickr contacts this year and it's nice to report that they've all been very kind and friendly. Wildlife and landscape photography is too enjoyable to keep to oneself; sharing the experience of nature is fun and healthy. I look forward to seeing more photographers over the winter; I am meeting a photography/fine art student soon, to help her photograph/video the starling murmurations. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy my starling photographs as much as I enjoyed taking them.

Symphony in the Sky

Starling Express

Band of Gold

Starling Murmuration

Starlings over English Channel

Starlings and Helter Skelter


Alan MacKenzie said…
If you are thinking of travelling any distance to Brighton for the starlings, the murmurations have stopped. The most likely explanation is that the birds have spotted predatory raptors in the area and fly straight to the pier underside without forming a murmuration.

On Thursday, the starlings roosted within a few minutes, so we just went to the pub. On Friday, there was no murmuration at all; the starlings went straight to roost.

I will of course be monitoring the situation and when the starling murmurations reform, I'll start posting images again.
Alan MacKenzie said…
I'm pleased to say, that, after a temporary blip, the starlings are forming murmurations again. I estimate that a few thousand more birds have arrived since Tuesday.

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