January. 2018. North East England.
Minus 6 Degrees Celsius.
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.