I was sick at home one fall day and I heard a European starling singing. Loudly. I didn’t see it outside of any doors or windows, all of which were shut anyway, and then realized that it was perched on my chimney, and therefore was singing right into my house.
All my high-end nature recording mics were in my closet; nothing was hooked up and my batteries might not have been charged. So, even with oodles of gear around, I just grabbed my handheld Sony PCM-D50 that was right on my desk, and started rolling.
Of course, the chimney did an equally good job funneling nearby road noise. Perhaps its narrow aperture did some pre-filtering on that background noise, as it was pretty easy to remove using iZotope RX. It also helped that the signal to noise ratio was very high, given the bird’s proximity relative to the ambient noise. (Tip: Ever use Strip Silence on birdsong? Try it. Super weird!)
Thus quoth the raven, "Press record, idiot!" (This picture was taken years ago in Oakland, CA, not where today's sound was recorded.)
[One in a series of posts from my spring 2011 trip to the southern California desert.]
I love ravens. Not because I’m all Mr. Gothy McLordbyron, but because they’re big, majestic, smart as hell, and have gravelly voices. Like crows, but drunker. They’re the Tom Waits of the bird world.
Ravens aren’t exactly rare, and perhaps because of this, they’re hard to record in the wild. They can be anywhere: Urban areas, tops of trees, windswept hills…but by the time I show up with a recorder, they’re either deciding to be quiet or are surrounded by traffic noise, intense winds, other birds, or even people. I’ve had the darnedest time capturing one cleanly.
Thankfully, the ravens of Joshua Tree National Park are pretty fearless…well, they’re also always looking for snacks, and have learned that people can be a good source for tasty (dropped) morsels. I’ve noticed that they often travel in pairs or groups of less than four to six, and one day we were followed by a pair of ravens as we wandered the desert trails. The vocalizations aren’t anything super-special, but they’re (for once) pretty clean, articulate, and detailed. Just what I was hoping for!
This raven was talking to his companion quietly as they spread out looking for snacks. He landed about twenty feet from me and I recorded him as he was hopping around. I like the little lilt he added at the end!
I’m just back from the 26th Annual Nature Sounds SocietyField Workshop. I thought that I’d share some video diary entries that I shot with my new iPhone 4. As far as I know, this is the first time that video of this workshop has ever been seen online.
I’ll be sharing more of the learnings, experiences, and recordings in the coming weeks. For now, I hope you enjoy this set of dispatches from the field.
While on the Queen Charlotte Track, two DOC rangers were sitting under a tree and said that this weka – an endemic, flightless bird somewhat similar to a peahen – was acting super weird, talking to himself non-stop for no reason. I proved that the best way to silence a vocalizing creature was to point a mic at it…they had a good laugh when that actually did happen. Never fails. *Sigh*…
Eventually, though, the weka I dubbed Mr. Mutters started up again, and I got a stream of avian obscenities from him. He was tasting a canvas camping chair at the time. Brainpower not keeping up with curiosity.
But check out the really strange, squeaky chatter this guy was making. Pitch it down a few octaves and it sounds like some of the other talking-to-themselves dudes who hang around my office.
This recording might not be of the bellbird, but what the heck. They produce the most amazing birdsong, so this little green dude deserves this prominent photo position just 'cause!
I recorded some pleasant-enough South Island birdsong one day along the Queen Charlotte Track, and found that there was this amazing, flutelike call deep in the background that went off every 10-20 seconds. It’s pretty far in the distance, but you can still make it out. I’d love to hear any identifications if a reader might recognize this. [UPDATE: Reader Barney from Nevada City, California correctly identified this as the call of the Australian Magpie. Thanks, Barney!]
While tiny, Point Lobos State Reserve in of California’s Big Sur region packs a wallop. Big surf, sea lion colonies, petrified dunes, amazing rocks, and a dense forest with many birds. There’s a loop trail that is full of rocky, coastal, dramatic goodness, but there are also little-used paths that cut right across the park. They’re not long and have a utilitarian feel, but one August I was there alone and happened upon a pocket of songbird insanity.
I wasn’t equipped for, or anticipating, an audio recording event, but one must always be prepared! I stood recording for about five minutes and was surrounded by what I think were juncos, sparrows, and warblers (although I’m not a birder, so I could be mistaken – identifications in the comments are encouraged!). I was surrounded by surf but the forest and hills kept the background roaring to a minimum. But the main reason for the clean recording was the volume – the birds stayed in their trees, ignored me, and were just singing their hearts out.
A pretty magical moment, captured as best as I could on the gear I had (some bandpass filtering was used to clean up the recording a bit). Enjoy.
This male Tule Elk was pimpin' with more than a dozen ladies in his harem. But really, who's gonna argue with a burly, mangy, and horny twelve-point bull about his dating habits?
The wind and fog were almost enough to dissuade me from visiting the Point Reyes National Seashore to capture images and audio of the California tule elk, one of the largest species of deer in the world. September is the end of the tule elk’s rut, so I was nearing the end of the time-window when I had the best chance of seeing and hearing bulls fighting, courting, and generally carrying on in order to secure mates.
As I drove down the windy, isolated road past long, undulating fences and remote dairy farms, I didn’t find the protected elk herds where I usually see them. I saw and photographed a few stray females, but they don’t typically make any vocalizations. Finally, I saw a harem of sixteen females and one male (“bull”) near the very end of the road. I used my car as a wind break for my microphone and windscreen, settled in, and waited for the stag to vocalize (snapping pictures with my telephoto lens when the opportunities arose). It’s rough to get ambience-free recordings out there; it’s a spit of land surrounded by storm-whipped water on all sides, and the wind was gusting to around 25mph, so the waves and wind were constantly roaring. (Side/tech note: Soundtrack Pro did a far better job on noise reduction, while preserving the desired frequencies and dynamics, than Sound Soap Pro.)
My patience and stillness was ultimately rewarded by several pretty clean recordings of the bull bugling. Trust me, it doesn’t sound like a bugle. More like unholy screams. The male tule elk’s call is as loud as it is piercing, with gigantic 2kHz frequency peaks that are 25dB higher than any other frequency. You may want to turn down your headphones or speakers at first. (I probably should have issued this warning for certain other posts, too.)
Full-Contact Audio: Contact microphones are cheap, fun, and beg for questionable uses.
There are Japanese beetle larvae living in my planter boxes. When we turn the soil, we sometimes unearth over a hundred at a time. We usually dig them out, leave them in a shallow bowl, and the local birds have a feast. I always wondered what disgusting critters that small sounded like, crawling around in a big ol’ pile.
This seemed like a job for contact microphones, the small little piezo elements that detect vibrations through objects rather than through the air. You can make your own for less than $5, but being a complete soldering nimrod, I ordered two hand-built, XLR-equipped and Plasti-Dipped contact microphones from Jeff Thompson at ContactMics.com. I jammed one of them into this slowly writhing mass. Totally gross. However, the sound was not at all as I had expected: crisp, brittle, and not that slimy. Since I’ve just recontextualized what this sound is, you’ll probably get all creeped out anyway. So enjoy. (Sorry about the ground loop hum, I was in a hurry and didn’t properly troubleshoot…)