Cape Clear Bird Observatory’s only ever Irish warden, Dublin-born Alan, now lives in Sweden, where he produces mouth-watering sound-recordings, using both passive and active recording techniques. He’s an excellent artist too!
Before I begin, I would like to state that I truly hope this website can help to encourage birders to take up field recording across Ireland. On a personal level, I have found sound recording birds incredibly rewarding ever since I first trained a microphone upon a group of calling birds. The species were Goosander and it was a terrible recording. But it has led me so far…
Birding for me has been a lifelong pursuit and I am still completely absorbed by the hobby after forty years. When I first began birding as a young lad, it was very much about the visual experience. I spent years familiarising myself with birds in the field – learning how they appeared in different plumages relating to season, sex and age. Improving optics eventually allowed almost forensic levels of scrutiny in optimal conditions and there always seemed to be more to learn. Of course, there was more to learn than I realised in those early days. I suppose I first became keenly aware of the value of learning bird calls in the early nineties. Spending time in the field with more experienced observers brought this into sharper relief. I began to realise that a wide knowledge of bird vocalizations was key to finding rare and scarce species. Of course, previous to the internet going live, such experience could only be gained by extensive hours in the field. Foreign travel greatly helped to gain more experience with bird calls, particularly with species that were scarce or rare in Ireland. Over the coming years I continued to train my ear in the field to the best of my ability. The difficulty in retaining calls to memory, solely based on what was being heard in real time was a challenge however, particularly with regard to species that were infrequently encountered. Then the internet changed everything.
With the arrival of online resources, the situation changed dramatically. Here, there was free access to sites such as Xeno-Canto. I found I could now listen to sound recordings made in the field by an increasing number of a dedicated field recordists. Species I had never even seen could now be summoned to call by means of a computer keyboard. I worked my way through the available audio and began to notice the high quality of certain people’s recordings. The first seeds were probably planted in my mind at that point. After moving to Sweden in 2000, I eventually decided to take the plunge into sound recording in early 2012. With regard to equipment, which was carefully researched, I decided to acquire a Telinga parabola from the outset. I was very fortunate with the acquisition of a Marrantz 661 PDM digital recorder – second hand, which I bought from a local birder, here in Stockholm. The last item was a pair of high end Sennheiser headphones, which completed my kit and I was away into the field. At first I was astonished by this set up. I still recall listening to the newly returned Song Thrush in April of that year, it was akin to hearing them for the very first time. The amplification of sound through the parabola was remarkable to my ears and the notes were like liquid through the headphones. I was hooked immediately…
I spent that summer recording territorial breeding species and gradually became accustomed to my new equipment. Field recording had broadened my birding horizons before long and I soon found myself recording overnight, in the blackness, for the first time. This was a completely new birding experience. I quickly realised that many bird species are extremely tolerant of close approach at night. Not only that, the cooler temperatures at night mean less air density, which allows sound to travel further in the twilight hours. There were magical, close range encounters with species such as Marsh Warbler and Thrush Nightingale, the birds belting out their songs at just a few metres distance on occasion. This was a new soundscape of roding Woodcock, drumming Common Snipe and a chorus of other night-singing species. Best of all, I was undisturbed, alone with the birds in the dead of night. There are few people abroad after dark, traffic noise is almost non-existent, all of which allows for high quality recordings to be made.
The majority of my recording over the following years consisted of active recording in the field with the parabola. As a general rule, I would visit specific habitats, such as wetland, woodland or open farmland and simply record whatever crossed my path. This proved an extremely enjoyable way to spend time in the field and it remains a favoured method of mine to this day. Each year, I eagerly anticipate the arrival of spring migrants and make plans to get out at dawn to experience the remarkable range of bird species present. Plans are hatched to locate target species, new areas are identified for exploration and new discoveries are made, often compounding further interest. I quickly realized there is so much to discover, even within the parameters of territorial songs of a single species. One of the more fascinating areas of interest is with regard to mimicry, which can draw you back to the same species time and time again, year after year. A particular favourite mimic of mine is Icterine Warbler, a breathtaking vocalist that takes me back to broadleaved woodland each year in early June.
As the years went by, I began to expand my horizons a little further. As much as I enjoy recording summer migrants, I have always been very interested in the calls of diurnal migrants and over time, this led me to train my parabola skywards during migration periods. Sweden is a superb place to observe visible migration. Given the right conditions and the correct location, particularly in autumn, many thousands of birds can pass directly overhead in a morning. These birds are invariably vocal and a wide range of species occur. A favoured site of mine is the island of Landsort, within the Stockholm Archipelago. I have spent many wonderful autumn mornings there, watching and recording passerines moving south over the lighthouse. The island is well placed to receive streams of migrating birds. During the autumn, migrants follow the Baltic coast southwards, whilst winds from an easterly vector can result in large numbers of birds coming in off the sea directly. Numbers can be impressive and passage is often narrowly concentrated at the southern end of the island, which is ideal for the recordist. All of this avian activity provides a fantastic opportunity to set up recording gear beneath the lighthouse and record the numerous migrants calling overhead. Slowly, over many visits, I recorded a wide variety of species. All the while, my knowledge of migrant vocalisations improved. There is always a great buzz after recording a good bird in such fleeting fashion, such as occurred with the following Richard’s Pipit, which passed overhead on a busy day of VisMig.
Then there was my first actively migrating Shorelark a couple of months later. Make no mistake, these were just a couple of highlights from many wonderful mornings as the sun rose over the Baltic…
Fast forward to 2020, with the breaking pandemic, the scene was set for great infusion of interest into sound recording birds at night. The practice of NocMig, as it became known, became a widespread practice almost overnight as birders became confined to their homes. Deprived of freedom of movement they turned to the skies overhead. There was tangible excitement as remarkable avian events unfolded, such as the overland spring migrations of Common Scoter in the night skies above the United Kingdom, an event that was documented by hundreds of newly invested, amateur sound recorders. An entire sub-community sprung up online. Recordings and knowledge were freely shared, friendships formed and the world got a little smaller. I got in on the act in late spring, fixing my parabola outside the window of my apartment in the middle of Stockholm City. I went on to record right through the autumn and was amazed to identify 65 species in the skies overhead before passage ended. It was such a rewarding project on a personal level. It was even more rewarding to share it with others as it unfolded. There were many remarkable moments over the course of the year, across the entire continent people were listening to migrants in the night.
In the past few years, field recording has become more popular and as I have touched upon, there are various factors that have led to it becoming a more popular activity. One of the driving factors has been the development of sound recording technology. Year by year, new innovations have led to smaller devices, whilst an increasingly wide array of equipment becomes widely available. Some of this newly developed equipment, such as the Audiomoth, are not only extremely affordable, but offer the means to capture incredible audio. I was initially inspired by Seán’s first recordings with these devices in Catalunya in the spring of 2020. I decided to invest in a couple of Audiomoth units as a result and began to experience the rewards of passive recording. Leaving them unattended for up to a week in likely habitat, the initial results were impressive. I quickly came to realise that these compact devices are dynamite when placed in the right location.
They came into their own during a trip to Västerbotten in Northern Sweden towards the end of the summer when I was able to obtain some wonderful recordings by placing them in flooded meadows and on small offshore islets on the coast. Some of my favourite recordings to date came during this trip, including a dual recording of Wood Sandpiper and Green Sandpiper just before dusk. A few days later I managed a clear recording of a brace of Spotted Redshank, at the time one of my long term target species.
Recording birds is a steep learning curve in the beginning. Over the years, I have found that it pays dividends to do as much groundwork as possible when field recording. Being in the right place at the right time is the key to good recordings and whilst this can happen fortuitously, you can greatly increase the odds of quality captures by applying a little fieldcraft and getting to know the habitats you are working with. Even a relatively small amount of reconnaissance in a new area will inform the recorder as to the specific areas where birds might habitually return to. Obvious examples include favoured singing posts, rich feeding areas and roost sites. Doing your homework, so to speak, is particularly important with regard to passive recording, where devices are left out in likely areas and retrieved later.
It is important to think carefully about potential problems that may affect the quality of recording. Weather is an obvious consideration. Strong wind is an enemy of the field recordist, always try to ensure your microphone is shielded from it. When placing recording devices in the field, always strive to position them in a fashion that shelters the microphone from the elements. Water and electronics don’t mix well and if you are leaving devices out in the open, make sure they are protected from the elements.. Beyond that, the sky’s the limit. Given time, the equipment does much of the work for you and provided you have selected a good location to deploy, the results can be incredibly rewarding…
Field recording has developed other, more unforeseen, positives. Notable among these has been the emergence of a sub-community of birders from all over Europe who have found each other online among various media sharing forums. Audio recordings are readily shared and discussed amongst like-minded, passionate individuals. Expertise and advice are freely given. All of this occurs in a friendly, affable manner. The benefit of this positivity is refreshing and plain for all to see. All involved are aware they are on a learning curve and it has been a pleasure to be able to contribute to a wider community that very much benefits from the sum of its parts.
Looking to the future, I have plans to continue monitoring both diurnal and nocturnal bird migration at a number of sites here in Sweden. As always, I have target species I hope to record and the planning and execution of these miniature campaigns remains as exciting to me now as it ever has been. As I am based in Stockholm currently, a lot of this activity will take place relatively close to home. I also aspire to do more recording in Northern Sweden. Along the Baltic coast, Västerbotten has become home away from the city for me over the past few years and I have already made multiple trips north. It is a magical place of stunning natural beauty and solitude, packed full of interesting birds and represents a field recorder’s dream. To date, I have only scratched the surface at this location and I will undoubtedly spend a lot more time there in the future. Just this winter, I endeavored to venture out into the field more often during a season I have previously neglected. I found that the crisp, cold air carried sound in a clean, clear fashion and that there was much to enjoy. The sounds of cracking ice on the surface of the Baltic as Hooded Crow called in the distance, a large party of foraging Long-tailed Tits moving through the trees, a feeding Crested Tit calling against a backdrop of displaying Goldeneye. For me, the real value of a sound recording is that it will remain relevant forever. Whenever I wish to return to such magical moments, I simply have to put on a pair of headphones, close my eyes and press play….Back to Top