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.

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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.

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Who’s having Goose for Christmas Dinner?

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

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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.

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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!

MORE THAN A MILLION BIRDS

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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…