Brighton Starling Murmurations - Winter 2019 / 2020

Update: When you've finished this gallery, move onto my project for 2020/21.

Welcome to my winter starling murmuration project. The photo essay is a dying art, so please encourage me to produce more like this, by leaving a comment at the bottom. You don't even have to login. Your name or an alias is better than posting as Anonymous.

Starling murmurations are one of the most mesmerising sights in the natural world. Every winter, starlings escaping sub-zero temperatures in Scandinavia migrate to more temperate European latitudes. The south coast of England is mild throughout the winter, although the weather can be very wet and windy at times. The birds spend daylight hours in parks, gardens and farmland. Every afternoon, they gather in their thousands to form shape-shifting, fluid murmurations, before roosting for the night, underneath Brighton Pier. Anyone in the city centre at around 07:30 in December will be startled by huge flocks of starlings making their way back to their daytime feeding areas. One can almost feel the air being disturbed by the thousands of birds overhead. When they are ready to leave Brghton Pier, the starlings waste little time departing en masse.

After an interval of three years, I returned to photograph the murmurations, getting ready with my telephoto lens 20 minutes before sunset between November and January. I particularly enjoyed using slow shutter speeds to capture abstract images of the birds. Many of my past murmuration shots were taken during golden sunsets, but in the UK, we don't often see direct, low angle sunlight. Dim lighting necessitates the creative use of motion blur techniques. I am limited, only by my imagination.

Starling Blur

November Blurmuration

Starling Blurmuration November 2019

Blurmuration Abstract

Brighton Starling Blurmuration

Starling Blurmuration over Blue Sea

Starlings over Stormy Seas

Starling numbers at Brighton Pier were down in December 2019, although more arrivals in January boosted murmuration sizes. This could be due to mild weather in Scandinavian countries, which recently recorded record high winter temperatures, but the overall population is in decline. Dry summers and the use of pesticides is killing their invertebrate food sources. We already know that insect numbers are dropping at an alarming rate. The future of starlings depends on our willingness to recover insect populations by eliminating pesticide use. Birds and predatory insects are of course, an effective natural form of pest control. Should insect populations collapse, many species, including us, would be at risk of mass extinction.

No-one really knows why starlings form murmurations, but the best explanation is safety in numbers, sharing information about prime feeding sites and to keep warm over long winter nights. Each starling shadows seven of its neighbours by constantly monitoring its position relative to them. The result is a fluid movement. Should a bird of prey attempt to intercept and capture a starling, the predator will simply pass straight through the murmuration. Sometimes, sections of the murmuration break away. The detachment occurs when a random bird moves slightly out of formation and a number of birds already shadowing each other moves with the divergent flow. 

Starlings and Rampion Wind Farm

West Pier Blur

Wave Blur

Brighton Starlings and Rough Sea

Starling Blurmuration over Silver Sea

Starling Blurmuration and sea

Blurmuration at Sunset

Starling Blurmuration at Sunset

Brighton Starling Blurmuration at Sunset

Long starling murmuration

Blurmuration over the sea

Blurmuration and Helter Skelter

Sunset over the Channel

We enjoyed a spectacular sunset on December 3rd, but if the weather is fine, starlings tend to arrive at the pier later, meaning I seldom get the chance to use the sunset as a background. If the weather is cloudy or rainy, the murmurations gather 20 minutes before sunset. My theory is that starlings maximise feeding time in good weather, staying out later. It may also be easier for starlings to tell the time of day, if the sun visible. 

January 9th and 10th produced two rare opportunities this winter to photograph the murmurations in sunshine. Heavy contrast meant having to exclude the solar disk from images. I found pointing the lens slightly away from the sun worked well, capturing the iridescence on feathers as birds passed through direct sunlight.

Iridescent Starling Murmuration and Rampion Wind Farm

Iridescent Starling Murmuration

Iridescent Starling Murmuration at Sunset

Iridescent Starlings

Brighton Starling Murmuration November 2019

Starling Murmuration and Rampion Wind Farm

Murmuration Sunset

Starlings and Brighton Seafront

Visiting Brighton Pier at the end of very short winter days over the last few months has certainly kept me occupied. It has lifted my spirits and kept me from giving up, particularly in these dark political times. I won't pretend that the general election result on 13th December wasn't a severe shock. Thanks to the brilliant analysis of LSE anthropologist David Graeber, I can begin to understand what actually happened and why.

The days are getting longer, and it is time to focus on getting physically fit, ready for the spring. I am already enjoying cycle rides in the sunshine along to Saltdean and back. And I can't wait for the bluebells to appear. Our time will come. Take care.


Cheryl M. said…
Murmuration is fascinating to watch, and several of these photos are quite lovely.
Alan MacKenzie said…
Thank you, Cheryl. They are one of the great mass spectacles in nature and I hope future generations can enjoy them like us.
Unknown said…
Amazing gallery. Thanks for sharing. Regards.
Alan MacKenzie said…
Thank you! Great to have your appreciation.
Unknown said…
Love the images and information. Planning a weekend in Brighton to witness the murmuration. Thank you. Claud
Alan MacKenzie said…
Hello Claud! I hope Brighton Pier is open when you visit, since it provides a great view of the murmurations. When are you planning to come? Don't forget to say hello, if you see me!
Unknown said…
Excellent images - very artistic.
I am going to Blackpool Pier - can you suggest a shutter speed to mcreate them blur?

Alan MacKenzie said…
Hello Stan, I recommend shutter priority in the region of 1/13th second and ISO 50 or 100. If the sky is brighter than cloudy dusk, expect your camera to select narrow apertures.
kp said…
Amazing work. Love the backlit ones. Keep sharing.

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