A Red Letter Day

Many years ago I was surprised by a comment made by a new WSRS member: he asked me if I was looking forward to getting my tape recorder out now that Spring had arrived. As a four-season recordist who likes to get out recording every week if at all possible, I thought this question was a little odd, but this year that situation happens to be true. Today, Easter Saturday, is my first day out recording in the British countryside after more than nine months of thankfully temporary disability. Spring is sprung, both legs are almost in full working order, and I’m back where I belong, sitting in the forest waiting for a bird to call.

I’m sitting very uncomfortably on a very steep slope, and only jamming a foot on a small hazel tree is preventing me sliding down into the river through some angry-looking dead briers. A light rain has been falling since 6am (now 8.30) but that doesn’t bother me. As planned (using weather forecast websites such as www.xcweather.co.uk) the rain will hopefully keep the dog walkers in bed for a bit longer; the southerly wind is carrying the traffic noise away, and in my day sack I always keep that most under-rated item of high-performance outdoor gear – an umbrella, which also makes a great temporary hide (but not the golf sort; if you want a dark green colour, go to an angling shop). I have two other essentials with me:

1. A can of WD40 – to keep the XLR plugs functioning after several months of exposure to the elements.

2. A flask of Tetley’s (tea, not beer – dawn is too early, even for me)

So why I am here and so uncomfortable? Well as you can read in the Autumn 2009 edition of Wildlife Sound, I’ve been involved in making recordings for the Northern Kites project in Gateshead. With great difficulty we placed a mic high in an ash tree last June, hoping to record the intimate calls of the first successful breeding pair of Red Kites in North East England in over 200 years. Sadly last season was a failure on the recording front, but my AT804 mic and Canford HST cable have survived one of the worst winters in living memory, and we’re set fair for another attempt at getting some close up vocabulary. And it’s been a triumph for observation and patience: we spent many hours last year watching the birds, and decided to place the mic on a favoured branch away from the nest, where the kites sat and even copulated. Now, almost a year later and in this big expanse of mixed woodland, the male is perched just one metre from the mic, and I can hear him preening, shuffling his feet, calling, even sneezing.

Suddenly, the LEDs on my mixer slam into the red, peak limiters flash, and hot tea nearly causes a nasty accident, as the bird calls – just a single mew, but enough to thrill me to the core. And thanks to a 10 second pre-roll buffer, I only have to press REC and it’s in the bag. Success! Click here to hear the recording:

      Red Kite

Later on, as so often the case with raptors, nothing much is happening, then I hear a faint rustle and a ‘kit’ call next to the mic. It appears that the branch has now been leased by a couple of Kestrels, and I am treated to some extremely close up (or BCU in the trade) recordings of courtship, food passes and copulation from the pair. Click here to hear the recording:


So for me this little tale sums up the joys of wildlife sound recording: lots of careful preparation, then being forced to sit and observe, getting to know the rhythms and the characters of the forest, successfully achieving one’s aims, only to be blessed with the completely unexpected.

A Red (Kite) Letter Day indeed.


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