I like a challenge, and sound recording on the huge open heather moorlands of Northumberland can create several – not just the wind and bad weather, but the fact the birds are generally a long, long way away. And one bird that creates a particular difficulty is the Red Grouse.
This iconic bird is a beautiful sight in full breeding plumage, not hard to see, and fairly easy to photograph with a long lens. But recordings made with a directional mic, especially the usual parabolic reflector, always sound disappointingly ‘thin’, and all the time lots of quiet but tantalising groans and moans can be heard from the grouse deep in the heather, which are almost impossible to pick up at a distance.
So, the challenge: to get my omni mics really close to a bird that characteristically takes flight the moment you appear on its vast horizon, and so to pick up those really quiet, deep conversational calls.
To crack this particularly hard nut, and to avoid disturbance, I decided on placing a couple of tiny mics in the heather along with a continuously running recorder – so-called unattended recording. After many hours of observation over a couple of seasons, I found a small mound that the birds frequented, and in the pitch black before one dawn this April, I set up the rig, full of hope (pair of Brady mics spaced at 45cm via Brady pre-amp to SONY PCM-M10); set the recorder going, and simply walk away. The major downside of this approach is that you have to listen through hours of mostly nothing when you get home, in the hope of extracting that gold nugget of conversation from a silt of silence. But this time it worked, and two male grouse called beautifully right over the mics.
The upside of this technique is that you can go off and do something else at the same time! So as planned I took my MS reflector half a mile away and set about recording Curlew displaying. Do this while you still can, for the UK population of this amazing bird has decreased by almost 50% between 1994 and 2010, and in many parts of the country their magical calls are just a memory. So please visit the BTO Curlew Appeal to learn more and support their research programme to keep the Curlews bubbling.