BY David Tipling

On a cold afternoon in February I was standing on Dunwich Heath in Suffolk on Britain’s east coast. Across the reed-bed that makes up part of the Minsmere RSPB reserve I could see a line of people waiting. Between us the sky started to fill with Starlings, a slow moving, growing flock. 

As dusk approached this flock 40,000 strong was attacked from above, a Peregrine Falcon dropping like a stone. Instantly this slow moving cloud became a pulsating, shape shifting thing of beauty, turning and twisting in perfect synchronicity, we were watching one of the great wildlife spectaculars a murmuration: the synchronised movement of a flock of birds in the sky. 

The word murmuration to describe this aerial ballet is normally reserved for describing Starling murmurations. But there are other species of bird that move in perfect synchronicity in large flocks in response to aerial predators. They include species such as Red Knot, Tree Swallows and Red-billed Quelea in Africa. 

Viewing and photographing murmurations has become very popular in the UK. But this spectacle  is not confined to Britain. I have witnessed some breath taking murmurations over New York from Starlings that are the descendants of the original 100 birds set loose into Central Park in the 1890s. The species rapidly colonised North America and were soon regarded as a major pest.

The beauty of photographing murmurations is that anyone can do it, you do not need a long lens. My go to equipment is the E‑M1 Mark III and either M.Zuiko Digital ED 7‑14mm F2.8 PRO or M.Zuiko Digital ED 12‑40mm F2.8 PRO. These lenses are ideal, but any wide angle lens will work to portray the vast flock of birds with in the landscape. Because light levels start to drop rapidly in winter, having an aperture of F2.8 gives you that extra bit of light to work with.

There are two approaches to use when deciding on shutter speed, fast or slow. My main aim is usually to keep the ISO as low as possible so I often use quite slow shutter speeds sometimes down as low as 1/15 sec. Excellent image stabilisation means you can hand hold and shoot at much slower shutter speeds than this. Using a slow shutter speed can produce a nice blurring effect to the edges of the flock as they twist and turn. If shooting into the light perhaps into the setting sun then I might be using much faster speeds.

I like to try and frame the landscape for a pleasing  composition before the birds arrive, then hope that they will perform in the perfect place. Of course this does not always work and I sometimes simply react to wherever the birds are in the sky. But having a plan on how you would like to frame your shot is a good idea.  

While photographing murmurations is best with wide angle lenses, other species may require a lens with more focal reach. Red Knot for example can sometimes twist and turn far out over an estuary and although I often want to include the landscape within my image the M.Zuiko Digital ED 40‑150mm F2.8 PRO lens is very useful with a nice zoom range to go fairly wide or focus in more on the birds. For even more reach this lens works really well with both the 1.4 X and 2 X teleconverters.

Once I have my pictures on the computer at home I will often experiment converting some to black and white. With often low light there can be little colour in the landscape and with changing shades as a flock twists and turns in the sky, these are ingredients that often lend well to the monochrome treatment.

One last tip. If you are lucky enough to witness a murmuration keep your finger on the shutter button and take as many photographs as you can, as often the shapes made by these aerial dances are fleeting and you never know what you will see next. That is why in more than four decades photographing birds I still get excited as dusk encroaches and the Starlings gather.

Get inspired by more posts over on MyOlympus. plus don’t forget to check out the latest ‘Picture of the Month’ competition for your chance to win a €500 voucher to spend in the Olympus Webshop!

See more from david at: