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.

 

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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.

 

In Bruges, with Doris Day

Much as I prefer the countryside, I also get a lot of pleasure from sound recording in towns and cities. Many have a unique acoustic signature, and a recent trip across the North Sea to the Belgian city of Bruges, blessed with glorious weather, produced recordings full of character. The tight-knit, brick-walled and cobbled streets reverberated to the incessant clip-clop of the horse-drawn carriages and a medley of passing languages from the equally incessant hordes of tourists.

In among all this was the constant passage of boat trips up and down the canals, with the occasional snippet of background information, also in several languages, drifting over from the boat ‘captain’.

Add some church bells, and the whole place reminded acoustically very much of Venice. Add an accordion player sitting by the Vismarkt, and I had the feel of being in Paris.

But why their fascination with ‘Que Sera Sera’? The accordion player loved it, but imagine my surprise when I happened upon a carillon concert emanating from the famous bell tower in the market square, only to find ‘Que Sera Sera’ belting out of a 14th century tower.

This remarkable and rather surreal lunchtime performance convinced me of the strength of those excellent Belgian beers.

In Bruges, with Doris Day.

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Foggy Forest

It’s a good job I don’t like tennis.

All week I’ve been told that it’s hot and sunny at Wimbledon – well not so up here in the North East. We’ve had more than 48 hours of continuous rain – everything is dripping wet, the lawn is under water, and the temperature has barely climbed above 12 degrees. Undeterred, I set off at dawn this morning back to my Snipe field up in the forest, only to find thick fog, and constant drizzle interspersed with bouts of thundery rain. And of course it’s July in Northumberland, so add a few million midges to the mix. Oh joy!

First jobsnipemicsfog2017-07-06 08.18.53 was to place a couple of mics in the middle of the marsh, which suddenly appeared bottomless, the crystal clear water uncomfortably topping my wellies. Left this rig unattended for a few hours, and headed off to find something else to record. Luckily, out of three hours recording this set-up delivered some nice close-up snipe ‘chippers’, along with something constantly nibbling and paddling in the water, presumably a vole – potential breakfast for the nearby Barn owls. It has probably been a good vole year, as they can be heard on many of my recordings at this location.

A random stop for a cup of tea from my flask, and a pair of Buzzards flew into the plantation behind me. For the next hour they gave a series of rather gentle alarm calls – their fledged youngster was nearby – and in between the downpours, the overflying jets and some distant sheepdogs, I managed to get some nice calls from the comfort of my car.

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Refreshed and slightly drier, I headed back to retrieve my ‘snipe’ mics, and was greeted by an old friend. The male Whinchat I recorded singing in May (see previous ‘A Night in the Forest’) has successfully raised at least two young – his mate may be looking after others since this species shows brood division. Like other chats their warning call has a lovely ‘woody’ timbre, and I managed to record at an angle which reflected this call from a wall of nearby conifers. Then the youngsters appeared with typical rasping begging calls.

So a few decent recordings and observations salvaged from an otherwise grotty morning. And not a tennis ball (or the sun) in sight.

Here’s the link to a medley of the sounds:

 

 

 

 

CHASING SNIPE

Setting the alarm for 2am is quite normal for a wildlife sound recordist in June – to be honest, quite normal for me at any time of year if the conditions are right. But on this occasion I wasn’t sure I should have bothered. When I woke in my favoured spot in the forest to get some more dawn sounds (see previous post), I found that the weather forecast wasn’t quite accurate for where I was – a cool westerly wind was gusting round the edge of the trees, which made for disappointing conditions and a poor dawn chorus. So a change of plan was required, and later on I moved over to a sheltered part of the landscape, a nice boggy area surrounded by tall trees, offering a nice reverberating acoustic.Redpath-gearI set my gear up by the fence, as a pair of Buzzard called opposite and two Cuckoos sang and flitted about in the forest edges – though a good way away, hence the parabolic reflector.  Redpath-orchids-IMG_9074.jpgThe field margins were dotted purple with many orchids. Tree and meadow pipits sang all around, so I felt it had been a good decision to move. Then rather late in the day, the local Snipe decided to put on an impressive display. After some ‘chipper’ calling on the ground, up to four males spent a good hour rising from their hiding places in the grass, doing a bit of drumming, then some spectacular flight chases, including ‘rolling’ and ‘switchback’ flight patterns, all accompanied by ‘chipper’ calls, then diving back down into the marsh.

The problem is – these birds are FAST! And they were circling high, then very low, and often right over my head. So to get the individual calls in detail, you need to take the reflector off the tripod, and wave it around as accurately, and as quietly, as possible. So after an hour of great fun chasing speeding Snipe (in between a few noisy airliners) here I’ve managed to cobble together a few of the successful passes: