Back in March 2020, a few days before the first lockdown began, I bought two pieces of equipment so I could start recording nocturnal avian migration by sound, an excellent way I thought to just keep myself entertained when bored. Little did I know that these items, a small Tascam sound recorder and a cheap shotgun microphone, would quickly end up becoming some of my most treasured possessions.
For the first few months, my recorder rarely left the house, being used solely for ‘nocmig.’ ‘Nocmig’ describes the recording of migration at night through the vocalisations made as the birds fly over, which can be done by listening back to recordings and looking for ‘sonograms.’ For much of 2020 and 2021, likely due to the absence of noise pollution with very few cars on the road and flights taking place, ‘nocmig’ was incredibly exciting, to me and the many others invested by it. Although this blog doesn’t focus on nocmig (it deserves its own post!) it did kickstart my love for recording birdsound.
By June 2020, I started to take my Tascam recorder with me when out at one of two places for my daily exercise allowance – either some local fields, woodland and a golf course near my South London home, or at my now patch Beddington Farmlands NR. When trudging around woodland especially, with it being dark, dense and overall difficult to see around too well, it can often be tricky to watch and/or photograph a lot of birds. Take for example Firecrests, which were often far too quick and secretive for me let alone my camera. Which is where my recorder started to come in handy. Though invisible to the eye, my local Firecrests could be observed in a different way, as I started to learn more about the multitude of different calls and songs produced by all the local individuals.
From here on, I started to find sound recording more and more interesting. Sometimes it feels we can rely too heavily on our eyes when it comes to observing wildlife. It might be obvious to say, but finding and spotting birds is made so much easier when you know not just what you’re looking at, but what you’re listening to. In places where it’s harder to see, or where a bird can’t be seen, if you know what you can hear it makes it far easier to eventually find it. Alternatively, it can sometimes be far more relaxing to listen to a bird than see it, especially for birds like Garden Warblers and Nightingales. They may not be as much to look at as some other species, but what makes them far more exciting to observe is how they sound.
Since I started recording, I’ve now reached (and got slightly stuck at) 168 species of bird in the UK alone. I have, of course, got favourites, all for different reasons. Some for their rarity status, like Glossy Ibis, which was the first British recording of the species, or Hume’s Warbler, a scarce British bird. Others are up there for how they sound. Recording the sweet flutiness of a singing Wheatear at Portland Bill in Dorset, a bird I’ve only heard sing that once, had me buzzing for some time after, maybe even more than when I heard my first Wood Warblers the day after, arguably Britain’s most popular songster. Yet overall, my favourite bird to record has to be Swifts, which on a personal level has helped me achieve several childhood dreams, such as appearing on Springwatch, writing in a book ‘Low Carbon Birding’ and also featuring in the documentary ‘Skyward,’ which Leica hosted a screening for earlier on in the year. Rather than focus on watching them through my camera or binoculars, I’ve spent nearly every day of summer just listening to them, making clear, warm evenings all the more enjoyable.
Over the past four years, it’s clear that more have come to acknowledge how much the natural world adds not just by sight but also in sounds. Sound recording may not be as popular as photography, even if it can be just as rewarding as taking a good photo or seeing a bird well – if anything, I’d argue it can be even more challenging. So for those interested in wildlife and birdwatching, maybe your next investment could be a handy little sound recorder – not only might it help you learn more about wildlife and find something you’ve never observed before, but might become a whole new hobby, who knows…