One little known highlight of the UK’s coastline is a beautiful aerial dance called a murmuration, which is performed by dunlins and some other waterbird species. Starlings also exhibit similar behaviour. However, for someone new to bird photography like myself, photographing murmurations turned out to be one of the more challenging aspects and this post gives a few tips that I’ve picked up along the way.
Dunlins frequent the UK’s coasts and estuaries in the winter months so a first question was which sites to visit, and when. Some online research helped here on the websites of the RSPB and Dee Estuary Birding, along with chatting to staff and volunteers at nearby reserves.
At the time I was living in Cheshire so the best prospects seemed to be Pickerings Pasture Local Nature Reserve near Widnes, where thousands of dunlins gather offshore in the winter, and Hoylake on the north Wirral coast, alongside the Dee Estuary, which is one of the best birdwatching sites in the UK.
By chance I also found out about an event organised by Wader Quest, held on the Wirral, where the talks on bird photography and behaviour were particularly useful.
However, as is often the way with bird photography, it took several visits before I managed to see any murmurations, typically dropping in to sites on the way to or from other places. Early to mid-winter seemed the best time.
The photograph above was taken at Hoylake where wading birds are sometimes forced up the beach as the tide advances, and may occasionally take to the air. On the highest tides, it can be quite amusing to see them shuffle further inland, as each wave advances.
On this occasion, I was really lucky as the birds put on an amazing display, seeming to rise and fall as one, with unusual strobing effects appearing in the formation as they twisted and turned. At one point, even oval shapes appeared although too briefly to take any photographs.
At Pickerings Pasture, it was again the tide that finally triggered this behaviour on one of my visits, rather than the more commonly cited reason of a predator.
On arriving things didn’t look at all promising, with little sign of activity. However, the occasional movement on the mudflats offshore suggested that there might be large numbers of birds there, although it was difficult to see as it was a murky day. The incoming tide was also late and as it was getting dark I almost packed up for the day.
The tide arrived just in time though and thousands of birds took to the air, giving a few passable shots, such as the example here.
So, murmurations are both great to see and to photograph. However, it is really important to observe them from a distance and not startle birds by your presence as this can sap valuable energy needed to survive. The Birdwatcher’s Code says more about good practice, emphasising that the needs of birds come first.
If you are interested to learn more about why murmurations occur and sites to visit in the Liverpool and Wirral area, my book The Mersey Estuary: A Travel Guide has more background. Click this link for details.