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Recording the return of the Curlews near Windermere

By M.J.Houston, (from Wildlife Sound #8, September 1973)

curlews img 8474Curlews massing in a flooded field in Cumbria, Feb 2007For about four days sometime during the last two weeks of April the damson blossom in the Lyth valley near Windermere is at its height. The curlews have returned spasmodically to the moors between mid-March and mid-April and generally collect in a flooded field or next to a tarn to pair up. The sounds of the birds mating, arguing and uttering their alarms are at the same time eerie and fascinating. These cries are at their height little longer than the damson blossom and soon give way to the familiar spring calls of the curlew.

This year both damsons and curlews excelled themselves. Most evenings just prior to dusk I went to a flooded hollow in a field, about two or three miles from Windermere, where I knew the curlews to be collecting. Once it is dark if you lie quite still the curlews either accept you or neglect you. The sounds captured on tape over a period of about ten evenings do scant justice to the wonderful atmosphere the birds created this year. A properly equipped recordist could doubtless have made better capital out of what the birds offered, but a Fi-cord 202 where the defective volume control has to be set at twenty past the hour and left to chance along with a meter that does not function are two obstacles. Add a home made reflector weighing half a stone to be carried along with the Fi-cord over stone walls which the early Victorians built, not thinking of who might have to scale them today in the dark.

Yet to lie in the still darkness with curlews hurtling in on all sides, announcing their arrival sometimes with a blood-curdling cry, at others with the rush of their wings, is an experience not to be forgotten. The open microphone is the bets technique because the birds cannot be seen in the darkness and the tricks of the human ear are so varied and diabolical that it is folly to rely upon the ears for direction.

Unfortunately the sky is filled with more than curlews' cries. A jet aircraft at great height can take ten to fifteen minutes before it stops reverberating from the mountains - often parabolic reflectors in reverse - and two hours of tape can often result in only ten minutes of jet-free tape. Invariably birds and planes decide to call together; indeed it is noticeable that one often inspires the other.

The frustrations of not being able to put so many of the wonderful sounds on tape can be offset. There was one really electric minute out of ten evenings watching and waiting this year, which made p for everything; this was when one bird, being particularly neglectful, hurtled down almost directly by my side. His calls were deafening and the scraping noise in his throat could be felt rather than heard. The call was quite different from the same call made at only four yards distance. Did it really matter that I was lying between the microphone and the bird? It was enough of a reward that it would have been as easy to reach out for this, a wild bird, as for the recorder.

The frosts came late and nipped the damson blossom. The curlews, now paired up and bubbling over their territories prior to laying, have left the flooded field until next year. But again next year, as soon as the damson buds appear and once the winds of March have died away, then you can prepare your microphones and machines for the return of the curlews.

Richard Margoschis interviewed Mike Houston about recording Curlews (from WSRS Circulating Tape CT21)

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