Pilgrimage of the Peregrines

Pilgrimage of the Peregrings front pic

This week we experienced something beautiful, as a field recordist, as a family and as lovers of nature. If I was a kid it would have remained hetched in my memory forever - and sharing the experience with two of my kids (ages 6 and 2), their uncle and their grandad, is what made it special.

The plan was just to do a morning walk up to some local cliffs were my in-law had eyed a pair of Peregrine Falcons Falco Peregrinus and their chick doing acrobatics. To the seasoned bird watcher or wildlife sound recordist this might not sound as special as I’m making it but having such a spectacle a 3 mile drive plus a 2 mile walk away from home has to be pretty unique.

On our way up we found the remains of two kills, one we guessed from a Pigeon, the other with smaller brownish feathers we are not sure - please leaves us a comment below if you have any suggestions.

When we reached the bottom of the cliff we could only see (and hear) the one falcon chick perched up on a dead conifer in the distance. As we got hypnotised by the constant calling and the birds got used to us being there, one of the parents flew to the perched chick and gave it a firm nudge, as if to push her to get flying.

Soon after and quite dramatically as one of the parents soared past the scrape (their nesting place), two more chicks and the remaining parent suddenly took off racuously. That’s when we realised that the Peregrine had hatched, not one, not two, but three presumably healthy chicks. What ensued was pure reverance for these agile flyers. All of us, big and small, had a grounding moment as we observed what looked like the best flying lessons any bird coud hope for.

For us adults, it was a real privilege to witness such animals in their natural environment and to be able to share a precious memory with the children. My in-law has always had a passion for birds and nature in general. When he was a child he kept an Owl in his room without his parents knowing (I know, different times). So i know this day had a particular resonance with him.

Peregrine Falcon from the Reader’s Digest Book of British Birds (1980)

For the kids it must have been exciting too. Ever since their grandad gifted them a beautiful 1980’s hand-drawn bird book, our children have shown an insatiable interest for birds. We have enjoyed learning about our local visitors such as Blue Tits, Robins, Swallows and Starlings (more colonisers than visitors these last ones!). But their personal favourites are the Long-eared Owl, the Golden Eagle and... the Peregrine Falcon, because it’s the fastest member of the Animal Kingdom. So for them, especially for the eldest who was more aware of it all, it was one mindful event.

From a Field Recording point of view, the conditions were near excellent; light breeze, a good distance from human hustle, and the rugged cliffs acting as a natural amphitheatre, enveloping the birds’ screeching calls.

I believe the experience it marked us all positively in many, sometimes crossing, ways. And I know that because there was silence, even from our sonourous two-year old. What started as a possible plan to occupy the morning ended up being a vintage day out. As my in-law put it, this is wild nature at its very best. To which I will add: right on our doorstep.

Ireland is noticeably quieter on Sunday mornings - hallelujah! - so I was back at the location early on Sunday to get a cleaner recording, which I did, but the Peregrine family fell silent an hour or so after my arrival. I saw one of them fly off into the valley to the farmlands, so I presume it was hunting time. Mind you the rest (or all for that matter) might have still be lurking quietly on the rocks as their plumage mimetises so perfectly with the colour of the cliffs. In any case, the intensity of the display was nothing like we experienced on the first visit, which strengthens my view that it really was a special day. I had nonetheless a very special encounter with what I believe was an Irish Hare Lepus Timidus Hibernicus, who kept skipping towards me unaware of my presence. You can see this in the video below (at 4m17).

The plan from now until the juveniles leave and ultimately the pair leave for winter, is to keep going back whenever possible to monitor any developments. I recently joined the Northern Ireland Raptor Study Group as a volunteer so I will be relaying any relevant information to them. From a Field Recording point of view my aim is to get more call variations, and closer recordings. For the latter I will pursue a license and seek expertise from the Wildlife Sound Recording Society on how to approach what seems unapproachable. From a visual entertainment point of view, I dream of seeing a live kill in mid air.

Ultimately, if it was not clear enough, I am delighted that the experience has triggered such a powerful response in the children, for to value nature is one of the positive gains in life.

The pilgrimage will go on.

The Outer Hebrides and other Hydrophone News

Recording a close perspective on one of Julie Brook's Firestacks. (© 2017  Julie Brook )

Recording a close perspective on one of Julie Brook's Firestacks. (© 2017 Julie Brook)

Its been a year since our first trip to the Outer Hebrides in the Winter of 2017, where we recorded the sounds of Julie Brook's fascinating Firestacks. Six months later in the Summer of 2017, we were lucky enough to revisit this stunning corner of the world, on a follow-up assignment; this is a brief account of the experience.

Waiting for a boat ride to complete the last leg of travels to reach the work location.

Waiting for a boat ride to complete the last leg of travels to reach the work location.

The main focus of these field recording trips is to document the life-cycle of the Firestack; from building, to firing, to extinction, as well as its environment. An important perspective that Julie has always been keen on capturing is the underwater one - what does it sound like under the surface when the tidal waves engulf the Firestacks?

On the first trip we had the privilege to work with a pair of Ambient ASF-1 Hydrophones, which we absolutely loved. The second time round we used a H27S Stereo Hydophone from Monkey Sound - an artisan contact mics manufacturer based in Spain - as well as our old faithful JrF D-Series Hydrophones. The H27S caught our attention because it comes in one casing. Given the rough seas we faced the first time round, it seemed like a practical feature in terms of retrieving the mic planted in the Firestack after the tide has covered it (Firestacks are around 1.5 meters tall at their highest point). These clips give you an idea of the colour and stereo field of this neat, relatively new, hydro-mic on the market.

You can download longer versions of these recordings here (free to use under the Sound Ark License Agreement).

Here's a few more sights and sounds we recorded - hope you enjoy them on your device as much as we enjoyed them in the field.

These are cold long days in a remote bay on the Western-most part of Lewis, and that's what makes it so special. There is practically no shelter, the nature is bare and the exposure to the elements constant. There is virtually no noise pollution, very little chatting between the crew and so the day becomes mostly a long introspective moment. It's a positive experience - you are immersed in the surroundings, constantly active, albeit completely still a lot of the time. The hours fly and before you know it (plus a 40-minute hike) you are back at the bothy, lighting the fire and regaining your extrovert self with the help of a dram of Scotch whisky.

Without a doubt one of the most inspiring assignments we have had the pleasure to work on so far, looking forward to round 3!

What's the most inspirational recording or filming location you have worked in? We'd love to hear your stories, especially if the location was free from noise pollution or on the contrary extremely noisy - you can leave us a comment below.

Ambient ASF-1: first impressions

Next week I’ll be travelling to a remote location on the Outer Hebrides of Scotland to record the sounds of Julie Brook’s captivating ‘Firestacks’, above and underwater. A very exciting project in many ways, not least for the quality noise-pollution-free time I will be having but also because I get to use arguably the best underwater microphone in the market: Ambient Recording's ASF-1 a.k.a The Sound Fish.

Close up on the ASF-1 Stainless steel body (centre) and acoustic sensor with NBR membrane (right).

I received the microphone yesterday and went straight to the closest water feature to give it a test. I will say straight away that I was blown away by the quality. From feel to looks it is apparently clear this is a superior piece of kit. It ships with a default (thick) 10m long cable and I also got a 50m one as the location I'll be recording in is subject to high tides.

The Arney river from Arney bridge in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland.

ASF-1 (left) and JrF D-Series (right) going for a dip.

To a Field Recordist, the opportunity of hearing something you’ve never heard before or just hearing it like never before, is the ultimate reward. The ASF-1, with its low noise and wide frequency response, enables just that. My experience with underwater recording so far always left me with a feeling that something was missing. Frequencies mainly but also the sensation that water was an adverse and somehow inaccessible medium for sound. This hydrophone completely removes all those barriers. It gives, allow  me the pun, a fully immersive experience. Here's a few downloadable samples:

To sum up, in case it wasn’t clear enough: I’m completely sold. And if I had the money I’d get it straight away, times two. The total cost including underwater accessories would circle around £1500 per mic, so for the moment we’ll stick to renting it from these lovely people

PS - a short comparison A/B file with the JrF D-Series Hydrophones can be downloaded here - I'll let you draw your own conclusions.

Sound Postcard 10 // Punta Tombo Penguins

This sound postcard is a submission to the fantastic Nature Soundmap run by Marc Anderson of Wild Ambience.

Magellanic penguins colony at Punta Tombo Provincial Reserve (January 2010)

Soundscape field recording from Punta Tombo, Chubut Province, Argentina (44.0454° S, 65.2235° W). Punta Tombo is a 3.5km long, 600m wide peninsula into the Atlantic Ocean, host to the largest colony of Magellanic penguins in the world, with over 200.000 breeding pairs. 

In the 1960s the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Province of Chubut Bureau of Tourism began working together to protect the wildlife of the region. In 1979 Luis and Francisco La Regina donated 210 hectares of their sheep-ranching land to form what is now the Punta Tombo Provincial Reserve (source: http://www.penguinstudies.org/argentina). The penguins arrive here in late September (early spring) and stay until April, protecting their eggs and raising their chicks for the next migration.

I got the chance to visit this wonderful place back in 2010. There weren't many visitors around so I got plenty of quiet time to soak it all in and get a few memorable sound recordings. This nature reserve is well run, with educational information boards about the penguins, their habitat and other animals living here such as gulls, cormorants, rheas and guanacos. The infrastructure is basic, consisting of a wooden walkway that keeps human footprint (literally) to a minimum. Penguins cross your path as they go from the nest to the beach and back. It's all very friendly and there is a real emphasis on respect and conservation, which leaves you feeling assured that these amiable creatures have a safe space to grow and multiply.

Sound Postcard 09 // Becoming a Champion

Four years ago, in the run up to the 2012 London Olympic Games, we got the chance to work on a short documentary written and directed by Chris Burgess about female amateur boxing in Sri Lanka. Our two main subjects, Anusha Kodituwakku and Nilmini Jayasinghe - ranked 9th and 17th in the world - remain to this day amongst the nicest and most determined people I have ever met. We followed them up to the Sri Lankan ABA National Championships, which they won comfortably in their respective categories. These are the sounds of that day.

And to keep you entertained, here are some fantastic pictures that Lee Bazalguete from Colombo Design Studios took on the day.

PS - Since the making of this documentary Anusha and Nilmini have both retired from amateur boxing and become successful boxing coaches. They are currently training the next generation of Sri Lankan boxers for the 2016 Rio Olympics.