MORE THAN A MILLION BIRDS

Sooties-P1110764

There is something very special about visiting seabird islands: the effort of getting there, the isolation, the spectacular sights and sounds, the ever-present acrid whiff of guano.

For many years I’ve lived not far from the wonderful Farne Islands, but now I rarely visit, and certainly not for sound recording. My last visit to Seahouses resembled a scene from ‘Dunkirk’ – a host of olive-clad, equipment-laden people gathered on the harbour wall, waiting to board lots of little boats. Long gone are the days of crossing in one half-empty boat in the company of the late great Billy Shiel – the ‘Countryfile Effect’ has resulted in the Farnes becoming a very noisy place, the talking and the clicking of DSLRs almost drowning out the voices of thousands of terns and auks. I’ve been lucky to travel further afield in search of seabirds, including memorable visits to the gannets of St Kilda, a week in the company of WSRS and thousands of Manx shearwaters on Skokholm, and several days on Wilson Island in the Great Barrier Reef trying to sleep accompanied by the wailing of thousands of Wedge-tailed shearwaters. But what about an opportunity to capture the sounds not of thousands, but MILLIONS of seabirds?

When my wife decided to achieve one of her own ambitions – we would be spending a month on the white-sand beaches and turquoise seas of the Seychelles – getting to Bird Island was top of my list, and sod the expense! Ninety hectares of coral cay, just 3 degrees south of the equator, ‘Bird’ is a short 100km flight north from Mahe in a Twin Otter.Bird_2018-09-18 12.06.20Your exciting landing is greeted by clouds of Lesser and Brown noddies, which nest in the many trees and bushes, but are equally at home sitting on the back of your chair or feeding their fledglings in the bar.

brown-noddy-P1110596

Brown Noddy

 

Gorgeous White (or Fairy) terns are everywhere, making their rasping calls and a deep ‘twang’ of alarm, reminding me of a pluck on a very loose guitar string.

ft-2018-09-15 08.29.56

White (Fairy) Terns

Equally gorgeous White-tailed tropicbirds nest at the base of the larger trees, so tame that they don’t seem to resent a gentle stroke of their 40cm long tail streamers.

wttb-P1110600

White-tailed Tropicbird

Hanging in the air above you, especially in the late afternoon, is a sight that always tells you that you are in a good place – Frigatebirds by the score – they like hot tropical seas, and so do we. Bumping into one of the Giant Tortoises outside your back door makes an interesting change from our hedgehogs back home, but bumping into feeding Turnstones everywhere was a curious reminder of the wintry Northumberland coast, so far away.

But it was to the north of the island that I headed as soon as we were unpacked. The Sooty tern colony here is world famous, and having seen it in many photos and films, I thought I knew what to expect, but no…I was overwhelmed by the sight and the incredible sound, genuinely moved to tears as I sat on the sand, entranced, experiencing one of earth’s wonders, and praying that all my recording equipment would function – it did, day and night, the whole trip, no problem – a rarity in itself!

sooty-sky-2018-09-16 06.59.54

The dawn sky full of Sooty Terns

I don’t think anyone knows exactly how big this colony is; a few years ago I believe it was estimated at 700,000 pairs, though that has almost certainly increased, and at the time of our visit they mostly had well-grown young, so certainly 1 to 2 million individuals at least. The sound is incredible, especially at dawn and dusk when tens of thousands of birds are simultaneously airborne. Indeed measurement has shown that 1 metre above ground, the noise levels exceed safety limits for industrial exposure. Yet some of you will know that even in such a situation, I’m still interested in close-up recordings of individual bird vocabulary, so naturally I got my mics down among the birds to get some intimate calls. Only then are you aware of something that I’ve found common to all large bird colonies, particularly from my work with Kittiwakes: although the colony appears to be constantly busy and deafening, at the local level (say, a radius of a metre) for most of the time not much happens and it’s relatively quiet. Each bird settles one beak stab apart, and so there are a few local territorial squabbles or courtship encounters with their ‘wideawake’ calls, mostly when a bird lands, and there may be some close-begging from the young, but other than that, mostly silent preening or sleeping. After an hour or so of such recording, it was always a shock to take off the headphones and hear the cacophony continuing above and around me.

sooty-P1110621

Sooty Tern – an elegant ocean wanderer

However one of the biggest surprises meant great news for me. There weren’t many visitors to the island while we were there, I reckon a maximum of eight couples at any one time, but in all the many hours that I spent with the Sooty terns, I never saw anyone. What were these people doing? Did they know what they were missing? Anyway, their loss and I didn’t care.

I was alone. I had paradise to myself. Well, me and more than a million birds.

 

Advertisements

Islay: corncrakes, choughs & cowpats

IMG_0402-letter

No phone signal. No internet connection. For a week’s sound recording at the 2018 WSRS Spring Meeting in the Hebrides what could be better? Well the weather for a start. The wind began as I boarded the IMG_0373-ferryCalMac ferry at Kennacraig, and it stayed with us all week, gusting crazily from unexpected compass points, then dropping suddenly to nothing, and while most of Britain basked in hot spring sunshine, we had to wait until the latter part of the week for some good clear, dry weather. But by then Islay was really splendid, offering dramatic coastal walks with plenty of birds, beautiful flowers and hardly a soul in sight.

My two target species for the week were Corncrake and Chough – I wanted to improve on old cassette recordings of both that I made on Colonsay nearly 30 years ago. The omens looked good the moment I arrived at our excellent accommodation at Kilchoman on the far west of the island, as a flock of more than 30 Chough cavorted in the wind above the  ruined church. These birds were to be my constant companions all week, whether waking me up at dawn, gathering noisily on the roof, or leading me a merry dance with a parabolic reflector around the magnificent sand dunes of Machir Bay. And with some excellent guidance from my recording colleagues (thanks, David) a night trip to Loch Gruinart provided the close-up Corncrake recording that I was after.

There was plenty more to go at. In the old WW2 radar bunkers at the beautiful Saligo Bay, a couple of Swallows were still nest-building while adjacent Starlings were feeding young. bunker-IMG_0421The enclosed concrete space created a nice reverb, the birds twanging an old bit of steel  fencing each time they landed. And the large expanse of the Gruinart Flats was alive with anxious and displaying waders – Redshank, Lapwing and Snipe – mostly I suspect with well-camouflaged young. At first sight this is not a great recording location – dead flat and criss-crossed by roads, but the people of Islay, be they visitors or residents, don’t seem to go out much after 5pm, so the evenings and nights were surprisingly free of traffic noise. And the nearby rookery on the RSPB reserve was a popular location for everyone to pop a microphone down and capture some more evocative crow recordings.

gruinart-IMG_0535

But I always have a desire to work on a somewhat smaller scale than everyone else. While my colleagues were recording soundscapes, I was thrilled to find Wheatear feeding young high on a sand dune, and using well-honed fieldcraft techniques (this would be the 70th species I’ve recorded at the nest) I managed to get a tiny mic into the nest, with another on their nearby perch, to record the sounds of the chicks and the adults simultaneously.2018-05-22 14.04.39

Also in the dunes, I couldn’t pass the many cowpats without a look and a listen; as I lay my mics on the surface to record one of my favourite sounds – the Yellow Dung-fly (yes, think ‘Blazing Saddles’) I could hear the cowpat crackling away underneath. Closer inspection revealed that it was full of Dung Beetles (probably Aphodius sp.), so true to form I stuck two DPA 4060s inside and recorded them munching and burrowing away. Thankfully these mics are designed to be washable!cowpat-2018-05-22 15.20.17

And of course, this is one reason that the Choughs are here; as well as requiring mild winters, they need a good population of dung-living insects on which to feed. The fact that the cowpats on Islay are alive with bugs is testament to a lack of the antiobitic-induced sterility that is affecting fields elsewhere in the country.

A night visit to Loch Tallant revealed great acoustics, with a large Raven roost, Woodcock, Water Rail and nocturnal singing Sedge Warblers, but with rising temps and calm conditions, the Hebridean midges – almost as bad as those in Kielder – finally defeated me and I headed off to bed.2018-05-22 21.40.43

As I drove back the next day for the ferry to the mainland, a Cuckoo flew by the front wing of my car for over 100 metres, and a male Hen Harrier lifted from roadside with prey, only to be stooped on by a Peregrine falcon. A spectacular and fitting finale to a successful week of birdwatching and wildlife sound recording.

Listen here on SoundCloud

Howler Monkeys? Surely not…

IMG_0244

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:

Listen on SoundCloud

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

Listen on SoundCloud

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…

IMG_9610ab

 

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!

Listen on SoundCloud

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.

Bempton-mics-IMG_9476a

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.

Bempton-gannets-IMG_9483A

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.

IMG_9378ab

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

IMG_9300a

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!

2017-12-09 08.24.43a

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…

Barnacles-V-IMG_9278

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.

2017-12-09 19.21.49badger

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!

IMG_9214a