FEBRUARY 2012: SOUNDS OF SABAH - #1


A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to visit Sandakan in Sabah, Malaysia for a few days. South East Asia was where I started my career, and the forests of peninsula Malaysia created my first interest in wildlife sound recording, so I was very happy to be back in that beautiful part of the world. I managed to get two short days at a forest reserve not too far away and had the most wonderful experience I have had for a long time. I could not carry any heavy or bulky gear in my luggage but had slipped my Olympus LS10 into my bag and hoped that would be enough for whatever chance I might get. The results were not perfect but were passable; the toughest thing is hand-holding such a small machine to use the built-in mics, as they immediately pick up any movement of your hand.

The first morning saw me up and out in the dark to experience the new day dawning, I was buzzing with anticipation. The most noticeable thing in a tropical rainforest - apart from the vegetation is the plethora of sounds: insects, birds, mammals, amphibians and even the dripping of the vegetation itself. Here are a few moments as the early morning mist was rising off the canopy and the nightime condensation dripped off the leaves to the forest floor:

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To my ears the forest itself really is like a living organism with each creature playing its special role to keep it all functioning properly. In that piece the buzz of insects was most noticeable along with the dawn chorus of the birds. But far away was the mournful call of the Bornean Gibbon (Hylobates meulleri), they make yelping calls which increase in speed until it reaches a small crescendo, not as impressive as some other gibbon species but still nice, you can hear it at about 18 seconds in this next piece, the sound carries over long distances and this group were probably 1km or more away from me:

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It can be surprising just how far some sounds can carry across this dense vegetation, sometimes it is by design because if you are an animal which exists at low densities or has a large home range then you need  to be able to advertise your presence to others of your species if you are to find a mate or warn off the competition. As I stood soaking up the sounds and the smells (at 32 deg C there are plenty of those too!) I heard two such species calling some distance away and decided to try and  track them down to see if i could get close enough for a half-decent recording with my little machine.

The first was an Argus Pheasant (Argusianus argus), I had heard its short call - a ringing "kwow-wow" at regular intervals, so I trekked off in the general direction. I found a forest track which made the going easier and taking a guess at where it might be I slowed my pace and crept along as quietly as possible. Suddenly from my right I saw a large grey body move across the track about 20m ahead of me, at first I thought it was one of the large monitor lizards that are found here, but a second glance told me it was a male Argus Pheasant - bingo !

But now I was confused, I have seen glimpses of these before and usually that is all you get - a glimpse of a tail disappearing in the undergrowth,

but this guy juststood there silently watching me. I slowly removed my backpack and got out my camera for a few shots, then slowly over the space of the next 10-12 minutes I edged forward a centimetre at a time - camera in one hand recorder in the other ! It must have been habituated by tourists or something because it let me get within about 5m of it and simply watched me. This was amazing.

Next I heard two Rhinoceros Hornbills (Buceros rhinoceros) fly in right above my head - this was the second species I was hoping to capture. Now these are large heavy birds with a stunning beak and head colours, their presence is detected by the call - a gruff strong "ger-ronk!" befitting something this solid, when perched it is shortened to a "wok". They settled in a tree above us so my attention now turned away from the Pheasant now behind me to the Hornbills above me. I have noticed in the past that Argus Pheasants seem to be stimulated to call by external noises - they will often call at approaching thunder for example. This one seemed to be stimulated by the Hornbills because suddenly it let loose behind me nearly creating cardiac arrest (Warning: this next piece has a very loud call at  11s and 26s):

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Now the techo's will know the recording of the two Argus calls was horrible as it was so loud it overloaded the recorder and is badly "clipped", but I wanted you to experience the shock I got being focused on Hornbills 20m above my head and suddenly having this guy yelling out behind me.

This was almost too much for my senses but the Argus continued to call and I finally got my levels turned down enough for a non-clipped recording, the Hornbills held their ground (or tree?) and continued calling:

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Note that this is what is known as the "short call" of the Argus - it also makes an even more impressive "long call" which is an elongated version of this.

It was hard to know where to turn next with all this activity from two remarkable species, but the Hornbills got bored and went off giving their "ger-ronk" flight call, at the start of this next piece you can also hear the characteristic whistling of their wings as they took to flight, quite often this is the only sound you might hear if they fly overhead above the canopy:

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People often say that more than half the battle for an interesting recording is getting yourself in the right place at the right time, and that more than half of that is down to luck, I guess I had a very healthy dose of the latter that day !


I will post some more Sabah sounds in due course.

26th DECEMBER 2011: BIRDSONG GOOD FOR THE BRAIN?


The holiday season and a  thick blanket of frozen snow outside makes me read more these days - so here is an interesting one.

The medical profession has long known that natural scenes and sounds can enhance mental well-being and recovery from illnesses, natural sounds can reduce stress and aid meditation. But Richard Black writing for the BBC sends a report that an investigation is commencing in the UK to determine whether and what might be the specific benefits to be derived from the sound of singing birds - do particular sounds or particular species have different effects on our brains ?

Very interesting, although it will be a while yet before the results appear I guess.

25th SEPTEMBER 2011:  RED DEER RUT  -  LE BRAME DU CERF


Red Deer (Cervus elaphus) (cerf) are the fourth largest deer after moose, elk and the Asian sambhar. In Europe the stags are about 120cm at the shoulder and weigh up to 250kg. The stags start growing their antlers in spring and by autumn they are hard and bony, ready for the mating season or "rut". The gestation period for the hind (female) is about 8-9 months and mating takes place in the autumn so that the young are born at the start of summer when feeding is good and the weather mild. Red Deer are promiscuous, with one stag mating with up to 20 hinds. To attract hinds and keep off other males the stags make a roar sound, and strut around showing off their body size and antlers, and herding "their" hinds. When the hinds are ready to mate they can choose which stags they allow to mount them, and studies have shown that they find those which call loudest and most frequently, and which invest most time in herding them and fighting off other males are the most attractive. So there is a big incentive for the males to be pretty macho at this time of year.

This whole process starts in mid-September and lasts only about 3 weeks. The males become loaded with testosterone, eat rather little, and spend their time wandering around looking for females to join their herd and picking a fight with anything that gets in their way or gives his girls the eye.

Although I have come across Red Deer fairly often in my wanderings I had never seen the rut and decided that 2011 had to be the year. This involved visiting the alps where they are most common and climbing to just below the tree-line (which is at about 2200m) where it all takes place. I found them at my first attempt on 19th Sept, but in a narrow steep valley where recent rain and snow had filled the river which drowned out the sounds. So my second sortie came a week later when I visited a larger more open valley.

The main rut activity comes at dusk and dawn so I set out late one afternoon, climbing steadily along a footpath. The trees were just entering their autumn colours and got more golden the higher I climbed. As I walked I passed plenty of signs of beaten up saplings where the stags had been practising or taking out their frustrations with their antlers. I rounded a corner and climbed along a shoulder, there were cows a still up in the alpine pastures whose bells tinkled away in the background, but I could hear a stag roaring in the forest on the opposite slope so I settled down to record pointing my parabola at the sound:

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This was an impressively powerful sound in my headphones, I would guess he was about 200m line of sight from me across a small valley, and I was kind of happy he was not any closer !  A Nutcracker was flying round calling raucously but when answered by the stag even it seemed to pause for thought. I think this was a lone stag, but I also heard what sounded like a struggle and maybe the clack of antlers which you can hear at 1m38s in this next piece, followed by what may have been a single call of victory, so maybe there were two competing:

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It was by now falling dark so I needed to return to my car about an hours walk below me. As I descended a small flock of Nutcrackers were collecting nuts of the Arolla Pine for winter feed calling to each other in their whining manner:

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Earlier on I had chatted with a farmer who had told me of another location where there was an active rut in an adjacent valley. So buoyed by my success I decided to spend the night in a small auberge and set off at 0430h the next day to find this other spot.

There was no moon to speak of and so it was pitch dark when I arrived at the pasture (alpage), plus a slight mist had settled in this hollow, so there was nothing to be seen. The day before I had recorded calls from a single animal,so I was completely amazed at what I now heard (but could not see), there might have been up to 20 stags roaring in the dark. As dawn slowly came I could see their shadowy outlines amongst the cows who grazed away completely ignoring the mayhem around them. With advancing daylight most of the stags got less active and the herds slowly retreated in the surrounding forest. Here are three cuts taken from about an hours recording, you can hear them fading away as the birds start to call in the last cut:

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I confess I had not wandered too far in the dark, they may be only 250kg but loaded with testosterone, armed with antlers and sounding like, that I decided it would not be smart to be mistaken for a competitor! However as the daylight came I could not help myself but follow one stag into the forest as he wandered around presumably looking for the girls. There were so many deer around that they had worn narrow trails as they wandered around and it was on one of those that he called ahead of me. I decided to stay well behind him and at one point a Black Woodpecker flew in between us which made for an interesting diversion:

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I began to realise there were actually two stags up ahead, and that at least one had turned back and was now pretty close so my recording was distorted, but still could not see him due to the vegetation:

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(Yes those were goats somewhere in the background)

I did not know what to expect if we came eyeball to eyeball (and was not sure I wanted to find out), and since the forest was pretty dense I sat down with my back to a large tree with a somewhat obscured view of a small clearing ahead of me. I heard the stag come back to the clearing, whilst another called some distance away, then there was a pause and he gave 4 very loud snorts, almost like a strong exhale of breath which resonated in his chest and echoed off the trees:

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My guess was that either he had smelled me or maybe could see me (I still could not see him), and that this was either an alarm call or a challenge, and apparently I stopped breathing. But thankfully he wandered off, and so did I - if it was a challenge I was not about to test it, but anyway he had a job to do and did not need me to become a distraction.

I returned to that region again about 4 weeks later at the end of October, by now autumn was in full swing and the trees were in great colours and peace had once more returned to the valleys, the fights were over for another year.


26th JUNE 2011:

WOODCOCKS AND BOUNDARY MICS AT THE MARAIS ROUGE


I recently made a "parallel boundary SASS-type" mounting for a couple of small pip microphones (OK OK I confess - my son made it for me !) following the plans of Rob Danielson's PBB2N model (http://diystereoboundarymics.blogspot.com), and have been testing it out. This type of set up is more suitable for whole soundscapes  than for focal species (which are more my "thing" as visitors to this site will know) but I have been looking for an effective mounting for long-duration recordings such as overnight or near to known roosts and maybe the occasional dawn chorus. For this type of recording I combine it with my Sony M10 recorder due to its long battery life and ability to automatically open new files every 2Mb of recording.

You can get lucky with focal species of course if they happen to come close and "surrender" to the mic set-up. This was recently the case when I left it out overnight at the end of June hoping to get some owls (but did not). The test site was at about 1,300m in the Swiss Jura an area comprising my "regular patch". In June there were many cows in the patchwork of fields adjacent to the forest so you can be entertained by the cacophony of bells that provide a regular backdrop when the cows are up there in the summer.

I have recorded Woodcock up there before and this bird flew past the mic at about 22.00h just as it was going dark and the Robins were singing their last after I had left, so I did not see it, normally they fly at least  30m or more above the ground so I was impressed with the clarity with which this one was picked up, along with the stereo effect of the rig.

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Maybe I use too much imagination but listening with headphones the bird seems to approach from back right, fly behind the mic and depart front left. I also like the feeling of spaciousness of the cow bells as they echo around the forest and the hills. (EQ applied to all of these to remove long-distance traffic and aircraft rumble).

About an hour later it picked up the chitterings of what would seem to be a nocturnal mammal (although I can hear some wings in there too I think), then interestingly two Woodcock pass by and seem to disturb the small mammal that calls again. I really do not have any idea what it could have been.

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[UPDATE 15TH AUGUST: Hannu Jannes has written to me from Finland suggesting these "chitterings" are excitement calls made by two males flying together. A litle bit of bookwork and further listening makes me believe this is indeed true. Thank you Hannu !]


Finally about an hour after dawn, the insects are humming and a Bullfinch flies in and calls and sings quite nicely, the cows have been taken in for milking, so this is just nature. I can also hear Wren, Blackcap, Wood Pigeon, Chiff Chaff and Coal Tit - any others ?

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Clearly more trials needed in different settings, but I feel quite pleased with what I have here. Thanks to Rob and companions for the tests and sharing the plans.

13th April 2011: MORE ON WOODPECKERS

These past two weeks have seen a sharp rise in temperatures and what little snow remained on the Jura has now gone, so this past weekend I decided to visit again a location I know holds Capercaillie, and last month I had seen their tracks in the snow. Despite two pre-dawn visits over the weekend I did not get a glimpse or a sound of them, they are both shy and scarce and the Jura population is in decline, mostly due to forestry and tourism disturbance I think.

Last month (27th March) I was able to record a Green Woodpecker drumming - an uncommon event. This time I also had some luck in recording a Black Woodpecker (Dryocopus martius) (Pic noir) drumming, something I have heard before but have not been able to record, in this piece I have shortened the time between the drums and it was a very windy day so there is a lot of noise from the trees in this recording, but you can still get an impression of the loud noise this large woodpecker makes:

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The following day was still devoid of Capercaillie but at least it was not as windy. This time for amusement I recorded two Great Spotted Woodpeckers (Dendrocopos major) (Pic épeiche) hammering out a duet at each other (and there must have been a third which you can just hear calling around 25 seconds):

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So all this drumming that was going on made me think that it would be interesting to compare the three alongside each other, so in this next piece I have joined my three recent acquisitions together, the first two drums are Great Spotted, the second two Black and the third two a Green Woodpecker:

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There is no point to discuss the tone (whether high or low) of the drum as that clearly varies according to the nature of the branch being used, but if we look at the frequency of the beats the differences between the birds become very clear:

GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER: the bursts ares fairly short, the two bursts took only 0.66 seconds and 0.72 seconds respectively for 14 beats which works out at about 20 beats per second, this can be seen in a screenshot of the waveform of one burst, notice also that the amplitude (loudness of each beat stays fairly even throughout.

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BLACK WOODPECKER: the bursts are much longer - 2.36 and 2.52 seconds respectively, but each of the two was a consistent 19.5 beats per second, very much like the Great Spotted frequency, but maintained for longer. Notice also the steady diminution in amplitude giving the impression of the drum "fading out" slightly.

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GREEN WOODPECKER: I am showing both of the sequences here to show something of the erratic nature of the beats, each had about 15 beats in it, the first at 16 beats per second and the second at 12 beats per second, and of course this is a much weaker sound (I amplified the waveform a lot so that you can actually see the beats), it really is quite unlike the other two, and as Gorman (2004) says it is altogether "not very convincing and rather weak".

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This analysis is based on rather small sample sizes of course but begins to illustrate some of the things to watch out for or to help identify drumming if you hear it. I will add to this as I collect more drumming from other woodpecker species. In Gorman (2004) you can find a more detailed discussion.



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