An old haunt improving with age

20200521_053548When I was a junior hospital doctor back in the late 70s, gruelling 1-in-3 or even 1-in-2 live-in rotas made those rare opportunities to escape into the countryside very special. So basing my training in Hull, deliberately near some good birdwatching sites (and near my future wife, not necessarily in that order), I had the choice of the coast with its excellent migration watch points of Spurn and Flamborough Head; the amazing seabird colonies of Bempton Cliffs – before its fences, signposts and visitor centre – or what was then a little known area of reedbed at the confluence of the Trent and the Ouse, the starting point of the mighty, murky River Humber.

I remember the thrill of sitting down there one spring evening in 1979 and watching what was then a very rare bird indeed – the spectacular aerial display of a pair of Marsh Harriers – before heading off for a pint of cold Guinness at the nearby Black Horse.

Now that we’re living back in Yorkshire, that same reedbed is a relatively short distance from home, so with lockdown restrictions partially lifted, I relished the opportunity to enjoy some splendid isolation…who but a wildlife sound recordist would choose to get out of bed at 1 am and drive off to sit alone in silence in the dark waiting for the dawn chorus? I wasn’t expecting to encounter anyone, nor did I.20200521_051509We get used to hearing about how the quality of the countryside is decreasing, that good habitats are disappearing and that there are fewer birds about these days, but in some places things are certainly better than they were 40 years ago. These vast reedbeds on the shores of the Humber are a good example, and so on a perfect late May morning I was treated to sounds which would have been exotic when I was a houseman, and certainly not birds I’ve been accustomed to in all those years living in Northumbria. 20200521_073050

As soon as I opened the car door under clear starry skies, I was greeted by the explosive song of Cetti’s warbler – who would have thought that, from only a handful of pairs down in Kent in the 1970s? Of the other main songsters, while the Sedge warblers have always been about, Reed warblers continue to expand their range northwards and now chatter tunelessly all over. Just before sunrise my target species for the morning – Bittern – starting booming, but too far away for any good recording. However a stunning male Bearded tit came down to inspect my microphones, giving its occasional ‘ching’ calls, and as the sun came up and warmed the air, a pair of Marsh Harriers wafted above me, even calling as they reciprocated a Carrion crows mobbing attempts. Gadwall, another expanding species, flew over in a typical aerial chase and a pair of Egyptian geese added a further touch of the exotic. A strengthening breeze caused me to abandon my recording efforts – reeds can make a noise like a motorway once the wind gets into them – but not before I’d got some good tracks from this rare habitat.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when we moved south, but this area will give me new and exciting recording challenges, and I know that I won’t wait another 40 years before revisiting this old haunt.

At home with the Bottle Jugs

Long-tailed_tit_IMG_4575aApparently Bottle Jug is an old Yorkshire name for the Long-tailed tit, and refers to their remarkable nest, a flexible ball of lichens, moss and cobwebs lined with feathers, and without any recognisable entrance – truly one of the most wonderful sights in the natural world. Being such a popular little bird and with this amazing nest, they have many other vernacular names including Kitty Longtail, Feather Poke, Bottle tit, but using Bum Barrel in the title could have been an issue with search engines.

I’ve previously heard the incredibly quiet burble call that they make at the nest, but never been able to record it properly as it’s only really audible within a few centimetres. I’m always on the lookout for a nesting pair when they start building early in the year, usually March/early April, when it’s important to follow any LTT that one sees carrying a feather, and you do need to find that nest before the leaves emerge. So imagine my delight when I saw this activity in one of our hedgerows this year, and as you can see, you have little chance of finding the nest later on (it’s in the blackthorn on the left!)


Once found, I waded into the muddy field drain and introduced a tiny microphone into the blackthorn (the source of some excellent sloe gin last year) and gradually moved it closer over a few days. Once I knew they’d hatched last week, I was able to safely move it to within 5 cm of the nest entrance, without bothering the birds at all; 100 metres of cable leads straight back to my desk, so I can record all day without bothering them.

So far it has been a great success. The male feeds the female while she’s incubating, and each time he approaches she calls ‘tsee-tsee-tsee-tsee’, then gives that sought-after burble call while being fed, which often sounds like someone tuning an old radio. It’s very quiet and high-pitched so I’ve given it a boost:

The birds are busy feeding now and are unconcerned with the now familiar figure of me standing in the cow field watching and filming them. You’ll see the mic in the top right corner, and that the nest is so snug that she has an extra hole in the top through which she can accommodate her long tail! 

Interestingly as soon as both parents started feeding the adult calls at the nest changed completely, and now I can hear the cheeping of the chicks deep inside that soft barrel. The spectrogram analysis reveals at least 4 chicks, amazingly with individually different begging calls at such an early age.  

Long-tailed tits have a fascinating family life, including having other family members feed their large broods, which I believe was first unravelled by researchers working in Ecclesall Woods, Sheffield, the very woods where I learned to watch birds as a kid. Nice to feel that I might unravel some more secrets of these super little birds in our new home.





A Miracle of Nature: the sound of a plant

A nice warm sunny day during coronavirus lockdown, and a perfect time to deal with a slight blanket weed problem in the pond, which we think was exacerbated by some fertiliser run-off from the adjacent fields during the winter floods; the Vale of York is extremely flat (if you follow a crow we’re 36 miles from the North Sea but only 50 feet above sea level) so water finds its way into all sorts of places, often in the ‘wrong’ direction.

20200417_082922aPoking around in the water, things were looking good with several water boatmen, whirligig beetles and one lonely pond skater. Then up with the algae came a male smooth newt and a stickleback. Clearly time to abandon the clean up and get a hydrophone in there, and yes, the water boatmen were stridulating nicely. Apparently they produce the loudest sound made by any animal for their size – 99dB – though I’ll leave you to Google how they produce it!20200415_155019aBut it was another, unexpected sound that captured my attention: a loud, rhythmic buzzing that kept changing over time, often accompanied by loud clicks. As I focused in on its source, there were no animals to be seen, and I gradually narrowed the search down to a plant…one clump of pondweed – Hornwort Ceratophyllum demersum. So followed several minutes of amazement.20200417_082820aIn the sound clip below you’ll hear photosynthesis taking place – this astonishing sound is produced by the release of streams of thousands of oxygen bubbles. What surprises me is how structured the sound is and how it changes over time, which is due to changes in light intensity – hence the fact that only the pondweed near the surface in strong sunlight was making the sound. When I took a piece out of the pond into a slightly shaded bowl, the sound changed dramatically, the buzzing slowing and quietening down. Of course this is a well known school experiment, but I didn’t have a hydrophone in 1972 when I was doing Biology A-level.

All this means that during our enforced isolation here in Hessay, I’ve found yet another thing to occupy my time, happy in the knowledge that at least some oxygen is getting into our pond, which means more creatures – and now even plants – to record.







A Hole in an Oak Tree


We may be in coronavirus lockdown but I’ve rarely been so busy; it’s a great opportunity to put mics in hedgerows, by the pond, in the meadow and up trees, with a network of cables leading back to my study, traffic and aircraft noise reduced to a temporary minimum.

At the back of the house is a huge oak tree, and for several weeks its inhabitants have produced much amusement, for every morning from our pillow we’ve watched a drama unfolding – a very lively battle between a grey squirrel and and pair of jackdaws. Over the winter the squirrel was residing in a hole in a side-branch of the tree, and every day the jackdaws would persistently sit by the hole, pecking away and calling loudly. The squirrel would occasionally dash out and chase the birds away, and when it was away the jackdaws would dash in and steal some of its nest material.

I love the calls of jackdaws, rich and varied, and this was a situation crying out for a close-up microphone to capture some intimate sounds. But this wasn’t going to be easy. The hole (circled in the photo) is about 3 metres away from the main trunk, and some 6 metres vertically above our rather deep pond. A few years ago I wouldn’t have hesitated to do what was a relatively simple climb, but I’m getting a bit too old for clambering around in oak trees over water, so placing the mic involved some fiddling about at the top of a ladder with a 4 metre carbon fibre pole. Eventually the mic was in place just 10 cm from the nest, and I could sit in my study and record.

nest-IMG-20200327-WA0001Jackdaws are intelligent and wary birds, so getting some images required setting up my hide in the field below. That hide was my old ‘Fensman’ that I bought almost 50 years ago. Sitting back in there, its musty and somewhat tarry smell immediately took me back to some of my best, and worst, sound recording trips: midge and mosquito bitten in Kielder Forest and the Highlands of Scotland, or sitting on the seashore on the Isle of Mull as the tide came in and flooded the hide. But what better place to self isolate?!

hide-IMG_2779aThe recording and photography were a success, even getting the quiet growls from the squirrel inside the hole as the jackdaws peered inside (too quiet to play here). And I’m pleased to say that the jackdaws have won, removing all the squirrel nest and replacing it with so many sticks; the hole in that tree must be much bigger than it appears.

Now on to the next challenge that Hessay has to offer during this difficult and worrying year…stay safe.



Three Owls

Our first six months in the new property are up, and we are well and truly settled in. The house is pretty much sorted, warm and comfortable, and many hours work clearing the brambles and digging out field drains (no need for a gym membership) have made the fields and hedgerows look much better.  Not too tidy, but more light and less dead wood should make everything that bit healthier. The big bits of dead wood have made an excellent insect pile in the corner of the field.

Every tree now has at least one nest box in place, so it would be nice if we could get a small Tree Sparrow colony going – the resident feeding flock has peaked at 27. The one natural nest hole in the big oak tree is currently a battle ground between a pair of Grey squirrels and a pair of Jackdaws; every morning we lie in bed and watch the squirrels gather dead leaves for the nest, only to see the Jackdaws remove them when the squirrels’ backs are turned. Very amusing, but I hope the Jackdaws win, as they are much better subjects for sound recording.

But owls remain the unexpected highlight of this place. There are at least 6 calling Little Owls around the village, and we have one resident pair that call almost hourly through the day, peaking in the twilight hours. When they come in to the garden we can easily hear them while watching TV, and this wee chap was photographed from my study window…


As was this Barn Owl, out hunting before sunset in February, presumably hungry after Storm Ciara.


I keep some microphones permanently attached to the wall below the window so that I can eavesdrop and record in comfort at any time of day of night, and most mornings this winter, about an hour before dawn, I’ve heard the distant hissing flight calls of a couple of Barn Owls. And occasionally, because there aren’t many big woods nearby, a Tawny Owl will come into the trees and hoot or ‘keewick’, waking us up at 11.30 the other night just a few feet from our bedroom window.

The recording features the distant hiss of a Barn Owl, then Little Owl hoots and contact calls, then typical Tawny Owl hoot, with wind in oak trees, all recorded from my study window.

Looking forward to spring, to see what songsters stay around, and what we can encourage to nest.


All Change…

These pages have been rather quiet of late! Hardly surprising, as 2019 has been a particularly hectic year, with almost no time for sound recording. Among other major family events, after nearly 40 years living in Newcastle upon Tyne we have moved house, and have swapped urban life for rural, the Tyne for the Ouse, in the geographical heart of our native Yorkshire. So now, instead of looking out over a busy main road with its ever increasing traffic, the views – and the sounds – from our windows are significantly different.

The wildlife is understandably different too. I thought my garden wildlife list in Gosforth was good, but this place offers daily surprises, whether overhead, in our meadows, in the hedgerows laden with berries, or in one of our spectacularly beautiful mature oak trees.

The raptor list alone is impressive: Red kite, Buzzard, Kestrel and Sparrowhawk are daily visitors, but I wasn’t expecting Peregrine and Hobby, the latter chasing the abundant hirundines on occasional evenings. As we move into autumn, a Tawny owl has begun calling in the past couple of weeks, just 5 metres from my desk (yes, mics are already permanently fixed below my window), a Barn owl screeches a few fields away, but to be able to stand at the kitchen sink listening to Little owls is quite amazing.

The bird feeders are busy with Goldfinch, Greenfinch and Chaffinch, hoards of tits, and the occasional Tree sparrow. Collared doves have peaked at an almighty 12. It’s costing a fortune in bird food and it’s not yet winter! And we also have had to get used to these blighters.


Regularly being able to watch Red squirrels was one of the great things about living in Northumberland, but here it’s only their American cousins so I guess we’ll just have to put up with them. Quite fun though to watch them leap across the fences or chase noisily over the tree trunks. Hedgehogs, rabbits, voles and mice abound, and last night a Noctule bat was cruising between the trees.

So all in all, it looks like a good move. We’re missing the sea, but the beer’s better, and hopefully these pages will soon fill with some Yorkshire wildlife sounds.

Who’s having Goose for Christmas Dinner?

I often think (in reality I know) that the modern world conspires against wildlife sound recordists.


A few days ago, with a favourable weather forecast, I headed off to Druridge Bay in Northumberland hoping to record some more wildfowl. When you’re in your sixties, it gets harder and harder to summon up the energy to roll out of a comfortable warm bed and head out into the December chill at 5 am, but almost always it’s worth the effort. I arrived at the hide, crawled out in the dark and placed the microphones, and all was well – not much surf or traffic noise. A few thousand Pink-footed geese were roosting just 50 metres from my mics, and all was set for the grand take-off.

But as I feared, as they were getting ‘edgy’ at 7.30am, a kind turbo-prop plane flew over, and the low frequency engine noise spooked the geese and off they went – several hours of personal effort ruined by a transient feature of 21st century technology. Something you probably wouldn’t notice if you weren’t also armed with hundreds of pounds worth of 21st century recording gear.

All of which meant that another trip was required. Weather conditions on 22nd December looked good, so up and out I went at 5am. The birds were there, but being retired, I’d forgotten that this was a Saturday, and slow moving headlights on the edge of the nature reserve reminded me that this was shooting season. Wildfowlers were gathering.

The birds were late to lift. 8am. But the sound was fantastic as they flew, as planned, right over my mics, only to be met by a volley of shotguns.


I have an OK recording, and I guess someone is having goose for Christmas dinner.

Sorry – problem with link so here are some pink-feet from a few days later!

PS a big thank you to the anonymous gentleman with the lovely springer spaniel, who arrived just minutes before the geese took off and responded to my entreaties for silence at the critical moment. Merry Christmas!



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


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.


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 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.


Islay: corncrakes, choughs & cowpats


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.


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…


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…