Howler Monkeys? Surely not…

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If you’re a wildlife sound recordist visiting Central or South America, Howler Monkeys are certain to be on your hit list. On the face of it, not that difficult – in Costa Rica they were almost ubiquitous, waking us up most mornings from just before 5am. Sadly this coincides with rush hour in CR; most folk are at work by 6am so just before dawn the countryside is full of the joyous melody of motorbikes, Land Cruisers and huge trucks. More of this later…

Now wolves howl and dogs howl, but I’m afraid that in my opinion Howler Monkeys – at least the Mantled variety of Costa Rica – don’t. They do grunt, like this large male a couple of metres away from me as he tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a tricky gap between trees:

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And when neighbouring troops call at dawn, it really is one of the best sounds of nature:

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But surely this isn’t ‘howling’, it’s ‘roaring’, though perhaps ‘Roarer Monkeys’ doesn’t trip off the tongue so well.

Whatever we decide to call them, after several failed attempts at recording them I think that I proved one of my theories. If you’ve ever tried to record wild geese in the UK, you will notice that they appear to take off, and so vocalise best, just as a plane flies over (WSRS members attending our winter meetings at Caerlaverock will attest to this annoying habit). I discovered a similar thing in Costa Rica – Howler Monkeys responded to passing vehicles. Not only that, the bigger the engine, the more vociferous and deeper the response: a gentle grunt to a moped, a fairly good roar to a 4×4, then a great chorus to a passing truck. Fear not, I’m not going to bore you with a series of recordings of Howlers (Roarers) vs Internal Combustion Engines, but food for thought…

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Some Birds Have All The Luck

It’s well known that a lot of bird watching involves the identification of ‘Little Brown Jobs’, but even after more than 50 years of serious birding, I’m not very good at it. Not that I’m a slow learner, rather it’s because I’m red/green colour blind. Maybe that’s why I’m attracted more to identifying birds by sound than sight, and I’ve often wondered if that’s been a subconscious thing.rainforest-IMG_0106

Our recent trip to Costa Rica proved to be a major challenge. Even outside the dense green and browns of the tropical rainforests, the subtle spots of colour which clinch identification of the huge range Costa Rican bird species (>900 apparently) were completely lost to my genetically deficient retinae. Forget Little Brown Jobs; to me all the hummingbirds (52 species of them alone) were pretty much just dark green, all the parrots and parakeets were pretty much light green, and all the woodcreepers were indeed brown – just brown. Add in the famous ‘rainforest neck’, from constantly peering up into the canopy, and bird ID became a frustrating and at times painful pastime.

So thank goodness for the many gaudy birds, but which one to choose as a favourite? Well the Resplendent Quetzal was truly resplendent, trailing its long shimmering green tail streamers through the cloud forest; and the Scarlet Macaws were huge, insanely colourful and surprisingly common in certain areas, although it’s hard to believe they are wild and not in a zoo. But the quetzal doesn’t call much, and the macaws, though loud, are a bit raucous. No, for me one bird had everything, and ticked all the boxes for tropical delight:

It builds spectacular hanging nests in colonies in tall exposed trees, often near human settlements, so it’s very easy to see.M-oro_nests

It is large, the size of a crow; mostly cinnamon plumage but with blue and pink facial masks, a scarlet-tipped bill and a stunning bright yellow tail.IMG_9738bIt makes a fantastic range of bizarre sounds, from short-circuit electric buzzes to rich complex vocalisations, the latter delivered during a ‘perched somersault’ as it turns completely upside down and flaps its wings.

M-oro-song-IMG_9731And as they fly round the forest gathering food and nesting material, you constantly hear the deep ‘woomph’ of their wing beats. But not content with looking good and sounding good, this species has been given a great name:

I give you – the Montezuma Oropendola!

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Bempton – it’s been a very long time

Bempton-IMG_9466aAn unexpected winter visit to Bridlington on the glorious Yorkshire coast found me back on a favourite bit of birdwatching territory. A trip to Bempton Cliffs was a must, but it came as something of a shock to realise that it was almost 40 years since I had last been there, and almost 50 years since my first memorable visit on a school birdwatching trip, way back in 1969; so long ago that my last sound recording of a colony of Gannets was made on Compact Cassette. Remember those? Clearly time to make amends.

Back then, you parked in a field and enjoyed the truly scary experience of walking along a muddy path and leaning over sheer unfenced 300-foot sea cliffs to watch, photograph and record the spectacular seabird colony. These days it is so much more organised – the car park, the RSPB visitor centre, the tarmac paths and the sturdy wooden viewing platforms. Probably a good thing with many times more visitors than in the ‘old’ days.

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But from the sound recording point of view little has changed, and the problems remain. When I record seabirds I like to be pointing my microphones upwards, away from wave noise, but at Bempton there is no choice; from your lofty perch you are always pointing your mics down towards the sea, so unless you are incredibly lucky and have a flat calm sea (rare on the North Sea coast) you cannot separate bird calls from breaking waves. However the 6th Feb was pretty good on a number of counts: a fairly calm sea, a complete lack of noisy birdwatchers and photographers, and being so early in the season, the Kittiwakes were not yet back on their ledges. Kittiwakes are one of my favourite birds, but once they are around, you can forget recording anything else.

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All this made for a good few hours recording small numbers of Guillemots and Gannets, while watching hundreds more gathering out on the calm sea, ready to occupy the limestone ledges which will be their home for the next few months. I was pleased to see that the coastal path beyond the main reserve has kept its untamed character, apart from the fact that once the ground had thawed, the red Yorkshire mud is as claggy as ever, necessitating a serious boot cleaning session back home.

I know that it won’t be another 40 years before I return to enjoy these spectacular cliffs, not least because I doubt if it will be a fit place for a centenarian…

 

Ice…Swans…Star Trek?

January. 2018. North East England.

Minus 6 Degrees Celsius.

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There was a time when -6 degrees wouldn’t bother me. Now I am older it’s harder to convince myself that it’s worth getting out of a warm bed and and a warm house before dawn, to go and sit on the edge of a lake and record the sounds of nature in the middle of an English winter. But – no pain, no gain. So after a nice cup of Tetley’s and ten minutes defrosting the car, I headed out to the lake with a plan in mind.

Some years ago I recorded a ‘Hole in the Ice’; in a big freeze, Mute Swans paddled to maintain a small patch of open water for themselves and other wildfowl. The swans, geese and ducks were quite vocal in this oasis of relative warmth, but what really interested me was the ‘zinging’ sound of the ice as birds tried to edge themselves out on to more solid surroundings.

But how about trying to record the ice itself, and not the birds? The latest weather forecast predicted the conditions I was waiting for: prolonged sub-zero temps and no wind, so I was happy to end up at dawn on the edge of the lake with a hot flask and under several layers of performance clothing. The lake was almost 100% frozen and the ice at least an inch thick. I leaned out as far as I dare and placed a small contact mic on the ice, weighted down with a stone, and immediately I was amazed by the sounds in my headphones. As the swans stomped and tried to stand on the edge of the ice, the fifteen hectares of thick ice were acting as a huge solid resonator, with the deep water beneath possibly acting as an additional echo chamber. The sounds reaching my ears sounded more like an interstellar battle in Star Trek than any natural sound in Northumberland. I sat entranced.

Then to cap it all, eight more swans flew in from the West. They looked as though they were going to land on the water, but I crossed my fingers and hoped that they would land on the ice… and they did! Amazing sounds shot across the ice into my contact mic as the adults landed, then a couple of the cygnets trudged through the edge of the ice into the open water, sending more sounds zipping across the ice.

I’ve been recording the sounds of nature for almost 50 years, but there are times when one hears unexpected and truly astonishing sounds; you sit there and think – did that really happen, and did I manage to record it?

But these were not sounds from some exotic glacier or from the polar ice caps, just an ordinary lake in the North of England on a particularly cold winter’s day.

Well worth getting out of a warm bed before an icy dawn.

 

Back to Caerlaverock with WSRS

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Wildlife sound recordists love calm, dry weather – perfect recording conditions. That’s just what we had over three days and nights at the Wildlife Sound Recording Society’s winter meeting back at Caerlaverock WWT reserve last weekend. Unfortunately, this glorious weekend coincided with The Big Freeze. When we arrived on Friday 8th December most of the ponds were, as usual, full of lively and very vocal wildfowl, but during the first night, my microphones picked up the gentle tinkling of ice forming and ducks moving further away. By Saturday morning, Folly Pond was almost 100% frozen, and by Monday morning, the ice was at least an inch thick everywhere, thanks to a spectacular fall in temperature eventually reaching minus 11 degrees C.  Not surprisingly, everything hunkered down and couldn’t be bothered to vocalise.

However that didn’t stop hardy WSRS members, who still got up at 6am every morning and ventured out, if only to collect their gear which had been recording ‘unattended’ overnight in very low temperatures. I was lucky – my room overlooked the reserve so I kept mics clamped to the window. The downside: I had to ‘sleep’ with the window open all weekend. The upside: I could record from my bed, and the WWT seem to have the highest tog duvets I’ve ever known. Cosy!

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The two target species here are of course Whooper swans and Barnacle geese – there’s probably nowhere else where one get so close to these Arctic species, mostly I believe down from Iceland and Svalbard. Approximately 8,000 Barnacles were around, and typically they gave us a recording challenge by showing different behaviour every dawn and dusk. Here one day, over there the next…

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Luckily I was in just the right place on the Saturday evening as they flew to roost:

Whooper_swan_Caerlaverock_IMG_6511aAnd overnight, from the comfort of my bed, I could record the Whoopers squabbling and moving between the ponds, that is until the ice took over and everything went quiet.

The reserve has much to offer apart from the wildfowl. The accommodation in the Farmhouse is first class, and warm! Every night the rather portly badger (well fed on peanuts and honey) put in a performance at the feeding station just by the observatory window, and by day the hedgerows were full of finches, tits, sparrows and thrushes. It also has a Dark Sky, so many excellent views of the universe were to be had, including a spectacular Milky Way.

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On the final evening I was sitting in one of the old small fibreglass hides, recording geese and watching the International Space Station fly over in a clear starry sky, when seven wrens flew inside with me to roost. Magical. And of course the many robins, kept rather tame with regular donations of mealworms, provided the perfect seasonal backdrop.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

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North Norfolk with WSRS

6-9th October 2017, and the WSRS Autumn Field Meeting found a small group of us back in North Norfolk, based once again at the Burnham Deepdale group hostel.

‘Challenging’ would be a good description – not my housemates (well not all of them) – but the weather conditions were not initially helpful. A quiet evening on the Friday night was followed by a SW wind increasing to near gale force overnight and through Saturday, with driving rain forcing us all indoors. So after several failed trips, Sunday morning saw us all in a convoy heading for a Snettisham Spectacular, from 5am. Recording conditions improved, with the wind dropping, and in the dark we spread ourselves out on the shoreline ready for the show to commence at high tide…

Then the birders arrived, their tripods noisily erected and shutters clicking away with gay abandon. To be fair, almost all appreciated our need to be as quiet as possible and behaved well, but one memorable party took the selfish route, clearly stating that they would stand “where they dxxx well liked”, which happened to be next to some very visible microphones, chatting away normally. I have never seen Peter so angry! Luckily I was far enough away to avoid the noise and the warfare, so managed to record the roar of tens of thousands of knot as a peregrine went after breakfast, then the deafening calls of oystercatchers wheeling over my mics as they headed for the lagoon.

Unfortunately for those who had to leave on Sunday, the following evening and dawn proved to be almost perfect. I headed out onto Brancaster Marsh under a clear starry sky to record distant roosting pinkfeet, then from 5am on the final morning Titchwell RSPB reserve delivered some excellent wader flocks – golden plover, lapwing, godwit, greenshank, curlew, dunlin, and even a couple of rare flight calls from ruff – though I was constantly having to battle with overhead airliners which plague this coast in the early hours.

All in all, another good WSRS field meeting. Even if the weather is terrible, there is still the company of good friends and fellow enthusiasts to be enjoyed. Looking forward to Caerlaverock in December.

Here’s the link to a medley of some of my more successful efforts:

 

Two Nights in Druridge Bay

2017-08-25 06.31.34August is the quietest month for the wildlife sound recordist – take a stroll through the lush green English woodlands and you’ll wonder where all the birds are, apart from the odd tit flock moving through; the moors are pretty in purple, but pretty quiet apart from the occasional 12-bore fusillade; and the fields are busy with combines, grain trucks or ploughing. One August a few years ago I was fortunate to be able to record Honey Buzzards at the nest in Scotland – feeding on wasp grubs, they’re late nesters, so unusually they are rearing their young through early August. But one can’t record Honey Buzzards every year, so where to go?

August on the coast of Northumberland offers several recording opportunities. Migrant waders are passing through, albeit in small and generally quiet numbers, but resident waders have moved down from the moors and are gathering in flocks; resident geese are also in post-breeding flocks, before their numbers are swollen by migrants from the North next month; terns are bringing their young over from Coquet and the Farnes; and ducks, though drab in their eclipse plumage, are just starting to get vocal again before displaying begins in the winter months. Off then to Druridge Bay for a couple of overnight recording sessions, to coincide with good high tides and some favourable winds in the forecast. It’s a beautiful area, but a difficult place for recording – flat, and sandwiched into a narrow strip between the North Sea and a busy road – and you have to be finished before the traffic builds and the (often) noisy birders arrive!

Night One: Cresswell Pond. A light mist, a minimal onshore breeze and a calm sea. Microphones set down on the North pool at 2.30am, in time to get the arrival of waders forced off the seashore by a 5.4m high tide, and then record the birds leaving just before sunrise – Curlew, Oystercatcher, Redshank, Turnstone and Dunlin all vocal within a few metres, even a silent Spoonbill scything away in the shallows. A bonus Kingfisher flew away calling as I collected the mics at 6am.

Night Two: Druridge Pools. Started at the Budge Hide at 2.30am – I hate metal hides, they are so noisy and acoustically unforgiving! Initially it was so quiet that I was recording the wing sounds of passing bats, but an unexpected change in the wind direction meant that I had to abandon my first microphone position (who’s driving along that road at 3am? Maybe another wildlife sound recordist?) Transferring to the North hide I happened upon the perfect spot for the conditions. Hundreds of Greylag and Canada Geese, Mallard and Teal, plus the odd Shoveler and Water Rail, and a nice flock of Black-tailed Godwit. The westerly wind meant that the geese all took off at sunrise across my sound stage – left to right – perfect! All enhanced by the pre-dawn presence of a cruising otter causing lots of alarm calls among the flocks.

One other reason for recording here, and for recording now: in Autumn 2017 we expect to hear the Secretary of State’s decision about the proposed Highthorn open cast mine development, in the fields next to these very pools. If it goes ahead, these wonderful sounds will probably not be recordable again in my lifetime.