27th MARCH 2011:  GREEN WOODPECKER DRUMMING

So today I thought I would have another go at trying to find the Hazelhens (see 12th March), the snow has had two weeks further melting and so the walking was easier but not completely ice-free. I was able to get fairly high up in what I think is an interesting part of the forest and settled down under a tree to listen. In the far distance a Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis) (Pic vert) was calling and moving around the forest, I could also hear other woodpeckers drumming - were they Great Spotted, or Black ? They were some way off so it was hard to tell.

Suddenly I was aware that the Green Woodpecker had moved into a dead tree not far away, I find woodpeckers really interesting and so I turned my parabola in its direction:

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The trouble with Green Woodpeckers is that they call very intermittently and so using my sound editor I shortened the time between those previous calls to make it bearable.

Later the bird became more excited and  started calling more frequently and also doing something else. Now I have read that Green Woodpeckers will drum but only on rare occasions. Gorman (2004) says that when they do it is "not very convincing and rather weak". As I was listening through the parabola and headphones I became aware that between calls it was indeed making a very weak vibrating drumming noise, definitely not feeding sounds which are not rhythmic at all (listen to feeding sounds here). I have not shortened the periods between calls here, it is the natural frequency, a plane was passing but I could not edit it out as it would also have blocked the gentle drumming noise, but you can hear drums from the Green at 12, 35, 38, 59, 1.04, 1.14 and 1.50 - there is also a Great Spotted some distance away making much stronger and clear drummings - serves as a good comparison:

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Gorman (2004) says that they do this next to the nest hole in spring and it may serve as bonding between mates rather than territorial display - but I forgot to look for a hole!  - maybe next time. (Did you hear the Bullfinch make that cry just before the fourth call at 1.22 ?)

No Hazelhens needless to say.....

12th MARCH 2011: END OF WINTER ?


It has been a very strange winter in Switzerland. Very heavy snow in November caught everyone off balance but since then relatively mild spells interspersed with cold but very dry weather means that the snow cover has been relatively thin and very icy. Recent days however seem to be signalling the end of it all.

Last summer I found a place in the Jura for Hazelhen (Bonasia bonasia) a very shy, fairly rare forest grouse with a very thin high-pitched call. They call very early in the breeding season and normally I cannot reach their habitat until the snow has melted and by then that is too late. But things are now happening to signal the end of winter, many birds are singing and a few buds appearing on the trees, so with less snow around I decided to see if I could get up to Hazelhen country.

I could not drive my car as high up as I had hoped, but I had my ambitions set and so I took off to hike the rest, I strapped ice spikes on my boots and decided to leave my snow shoes behind (error !) to save weight. It was a dull grey day, rather disappointing really, but the icy ground was firm and not too shiny so the going quite easy. My first reward was a Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) (Bec-croisé) in song and a Raven (Corvus corax) (Grand corbeau) which passed overhead and gave me a couple of nice croaks and crackling noises:

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Somewhat energised by that I climbed higher. The snow had melted on the slopes exposed to the sun, but in the shade and the hollows it was still deep with an ice crust that I frequently fell through - I regretted my snow-shoe error !

One of our first singers in the mountains is the Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorous) (Grive draine), usually from an exposed perch high in a tree its liquid notes flow and echo over the forest with others answering in the distance:

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At the end of winter many first year birds are still trying to get their full song right and often sing something called a "plastic" song, similar to sub-song but a bit stronger. Here is a Mistle Thrush that seems to sing a few warm-up phrases which may be either plastic or sub-song (how to tell?), before breaking out into full song after 28 seconds:

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This is the time to set up territories and find a mate, so they also indulge in chases and fights giving out harsh scolding calls as they squabble over who is toughest, here are a bunch going at it when a Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis) (Pic vert) drops in and yells at them with his "yaffle" call:

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This all kept me well amused as I climbed higher through the snow, it was hard work and so as I reached my target area I was very happy to slow down and start listening more carefully. Not a trace of a Hazelhen anywhere unfortunately, but I was suddenly exhilarated to hear a relatively boring sound like a vehicle reversing alarm which I had only heard once before - the monotonous pooping sound of a Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium passerinum) (Chevêchette d'Europe). I had once got a distant recording of this bird along with some foxes, but now I had a chance to get closer. The bird was very mobile flying around its territory, but after 45 mins or so stalking around I was able to get close enough to make a recording I was happy with - the owl also attracted a Jay (Garrulus glandarius) (Geai) which came scolding close by (Pygmy Owls eat small birds) and scared it off, hear its squawking at the end:

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Still no evidence of the Hazelhens, but the snow here was too deep and my legs too tired to do much more, so I set off back down to my car. On the way home I stopped at a small oak wood where I had left the Sony M10 out overnight to see what I could catch (mostly aircraft and motorbikes sadly), but walking in with the Telinga in hand I was pleased to find a Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) (Pic épeiche) who had found himself a nice tenor drum:

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In the background you can hear our other thrush - Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) (Grive musiciene) singing its repeat phrases. However the tenor drummer created a stir with the competition, and what was probably another male flew in which resulted in a certain amount of shouting and chasing after which one bird settled down and started feeding whilst the other took up a deeper drum some distance away, you can hear the sequence:

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So - singing, shouting, calling, chasing and drumming - they are all at it ! Winter is ending and spring will soon be in full swing, I love the seasons of transition, especially spring !

29th December 2010: DECEMBER SCENE

A couple of days ago the thermometer crept above 0 deg C for the first time in several weeks, the sun was out and the sky was blue so I took the Telinga and my Sony PCM 10 a walk up into the Jura behind my village. I climbed up along the forest edge, the snow had melted off the trees and the dripping water and warm sunshine had left a cleared strip of grass by the trees. Looking back down the way I had come, I could see the French alps in the far distance and low cloud hanging over the Lake Geneva (Lac Léman) basin. This cloud often forms at this time of year as cold air sinks into the valley and becomes trapped below sunny warmer air above, creating an inversion layer at about 600m asl - below it is cold and grey, above it can be 6 degrees warmer and bright sun, and at the junction of the two a dense cloud forms.

Roe Deer - chevreuil (Capreolus capreolus) were around the forest edge, probably making the most of the newly exposed vegetation and they were alarmed at my approach, there were several scattered at different distances, including one very close and they kept me well entertained for several minutes even though I did not see any of them ! (The following is a long file so wait for it to load):

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In the background there you maybe heard some small contact calls and wing beats, these were mostly Coal Tits (Parus ater) with a few Great Tits (Parus major) mixed in:

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The last few strident calls starting at 24s in that piece were the Great Tits. The mixed flock was working the sunny side of the forest really hard, constantly flying around, sometimes coming down to the exposed grass to pick seeds, but also scrambling about in the pine trees pecking at cones and maybe chasing the few insects that had awoken in the unexpected warmth of the sun. It was as though the whole air around my head was filled with the sound of their wings:

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I sat in a sheltered warm corner and ate a sandwich and made good use of my thermos and admired the stunning view of Mont Blanc (the highest mountain in W Europe) nearly 90kms away as the crow would fly it. I found the day invigorating with so much going on in such glorious weather and decided to continue up the hill to a place I call "Lynx valley" having been lucky enough to record a European Lynx (Lynx lynx) there a few years ago. The forest was very quiet on the way up, very little moving in its cold interior. I emerged into the valley with ears alert (I am an optimist !) but there was no sound from the biggest predator we have in these parts - no surprises there though.

A few birds were active though, and a lone Raven (Corvus corax) called out a high-pitched note whilst a couple of Marsh Tits (Parus palustris) gave their "pitchooee" call and a Nuthatch (Sitta europea) "choinked" away in the background:

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Casting around I did find some tracks in the snow, but they were several days old and had become fuzzy and half-filled in with wind-blown snow but the size and the length of stride seemed right for Lynx and I followed them to a dry-stone wall that it had leaped over - good to know there is still activity in this area.

I was now knee-deep in the snow and the going was hard work without snow shoes, but I was rewarded by yet another small flock of tits - once again Coal Tits (the high-pitched "tzee") but this time mixed in with Willow Tits (Parus montanus) who were giving their diagnostic nasal "chee-chee-chee" scolding calls:

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As I descended the sun was setting and I caught a glimpse of the alps across the valley whose peaks were just catching the last warm rays. A fairly quiet but relaxed walk to finish the year.


JULY 26th 2010: EARLY MORNING MYSTERY

It is now midsummer in the northern hemisphere and things quieten down a lot. Breeding is just about done and a lot of attention is given to making sure that this years surviving young are still intact or, for many bird species, fattening up prior to migration - either way bird sounds diminish dramatically and the countryside becomes quieter. Nonetheless on a nice sunny morning at the end of July I decided to take a thermos flask and hike up into the Jura behind my village, devoid of any great expectations. I had not gone too far, and was crossing a pasture where cows were grazing when I heard a Raven calling over the far side. A cow with a particularly irritating bell was in front of me, plus the aircraft had started to enter Geneva airport, and I was trying to work out how best to position myself for a half-decent recording when I became aware of a new and very different sound off to my right:

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This was a rather blood curdling screaming noise, coming from the edge of the forest about 150m or so to my right, this clearly grabbed my attention and I turned the parabola:

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I had no clue what the noise was (but it had also attracted the Raven) and its sudden ending made me assume that a small creature had met its doom in the jaws of a bigger one. This was only about 2Km from where I had once recorded a Lynx and so my anticipation was high ! The sound had also brought in a Hare which ran across the pasture and stopped about 20m from me, it was very alert, ears pointing directly at the sound and it stared intently at the forest. I could only suppose that one of its relatives had become somebodies breakfast - maybe a fox or maybe my lynx had got it.

Things soon settled down, the Hare had not seen me and started to graze and clean its muzzle, you can just hear it munching quietly between 6s and 24s in the following piece, it later caught sight of me, realised its dreadful error and took off at high speed (44s):

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In that piece you can also hear the "whee-choo" of Coal Tits and the call of a Green Woodpecker at about 30s.

Not wanting to disturb anyones breakfast I did not go over to investigate but hiked on upwards in order to look down at the place where I thought the incident had happened. What I saw through my binoculars was a pair of foxes sniffing around a tree and looking generally relaxed, so I assumed they were the killers.

On my back down some hours later I took a walk around that tree expecting to find blood and gore scattered about, but I found nothing at all, only the Raven was still hanging around with the cows hoping a meal was to be had somewhere:

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Back home I downloaded the files from my Fostex and listened carefully. I am no longer sure that it was an animal being slaughtered, it sounds more canine to my ears, especially the yapping towards the end - could the fixes have been fighting ? I think I have seen a reference in the past that female foxes are known to scream loudly during copulation but I cannot find it now - if anybody who reads this has an idea what was happening do please tell me and I will update this post. Was the dying screams of the hares relative or was it the foxes up to some tricks ? Not the greatest recordings but intriguing nevertheless.

And the cow with that damned bell ? Never even raised its head the whole morning as far as I could tell.


UPDATE: Thanks to Martyn Stewart and Juliet Walters I am now pretty sure these were two young foxes "play fighting" and making that screaming noise - thanks to both !


JULY 2010: PEACEFUL ALPS ?

You might be forgiven for thinking the Swiss alps should be the heartland of tranquility in Europe - well some bits are, but there is still a lot of activity there whose noise echoes around the valleys and carries a long way. Each mountain farm is only used in the summer months but needs its own generators, milking machines, vehicles to take the milk down, grass cutters for silage, and increasingly helicopters are a common work vehicle for transporting goods and construction materials to some of those hard to reach places.

Last week I was hiking in the mountains in the early morning when the cows were being brought in for milking. In the highest summer pastures they range over a wide area and the farmers have characteristic and rhythmic calls to try and bring them down off the hillside, inevitably they have to walk out and up into all the corners to get them all in - the sound of the bells guiding them to the reluctant ones. The following sequence is in 3 parts: first the cowgirl starts calling and walking out over the hill, the cows who know what to do start descending and the bells get closer, second the girl is now well out over the hill and a steady stream of adult cows are coming down, third the free-ranging calves follow on out of curiosity, they wear lighter bells with a higher tone. As the piece closes one little straggler comes trotting past with her bell tinkling rhythmically:

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I climbed on up past the farming line, heading for some cliffs and scree slopes where I was hoping I may just come across some Rock Ptarmigan. It had been pretty cold and very wet for a few days and when I  stopped to record a Wheatear I could hear a steady stream of rocks falling off the cliffs on to the slopes I was heading for. I was still about 1 km from where they were falling when I made this recording, it was just a steady stream of rocks, not an avalanche or landslide which will roar and then stop - I guess the first hot sunny day for some time was expanding the rocks and so loosening everything:

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I decided to not go any higher and left that area to the solitary crow and numerous bees - maybe I would find Ptarmigan elsewhere !

Some posts ago you may have heard me complain about how Roe Deer constantly try to give me a heart attack by barking alarm calls at the last minute. Their place in this highly unpleasant game is taken over at altitude by a large rodent called a Marmot (M.marmota) - a sort of European ground hog if you like. They give piercing alarm calls, which a normal hiker hears at a long distance, but if you happen to be creeping around with a recorder you can sometimes end up with one very close, since they largely resemble the rocks they live in I usually don't see them until they yell at me when it then gives me a fright:

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If you listen carefully to that recording at about 35 secs you can hear some feet shuffling in the grass, this was a Chamois (R. rupicapra) which strolled across between me and the Marmot, fairly unfazed by my presence. No alarm calls from this one. In fact Chamois are pretty silent beasts most of the time. When they drop their young in early summer they usually go up very high, but I do hear the mothers and kids communicating just the way you would expect from a wild goat:

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They are very shy animals but if you do get close to them they signal alarm by stopping walking, standing stock still and staring at you, then letting the air out through flared nostrils in a gentle wheeze like someone letting off the steam. They do not do that often so here is a compilation of several calls made on different occasions:

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You can see why the Swiss are proud of the mountains, not for the faint-hearted but a rich mixture of rural traditions, dramatic landscapes and fascinating wildlife. Maybe not so tranquil but certainly not boring !

[Technical Footnote:

The rockfall and Marmot were with a Telinga Pro5W in a parabola into a Sony M10.

The rest were the same Telinga into a Fostex FR2LE.]


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