Graham Clarke

Graham is an Irish birder, sound-recordist and host of the Phil More’s Corner Podcast. Now living in Norwich: Graham has recently taken up sound recording, having bought a Dodotronic Hi-Sound Stereo Parabola. Graham is a very enthusiastic NocMigger and is responsible for Norwich’s first NocMig record of Ortolan Bunting – from his back garden!

I never had time for NocMigging, or so I thought! The idea of scrolling through hours of sonograms looking for signs of passing birds didn’t appeal to me. Even when Seán (Ronayne) was excitedly telling me about the amazing records he was having of migrating birds over his suburban flat in Catalunya, it still didn’t grab me.

Typical autumn nocmig fare – sonograms of Redwing & Song Thrush (left & right, respectively). Photo: Seán Ronayne

But, wind back to March 2020. Spring was just getting started and then ‘Bang’……….Lockdown. I couldn’t go to the coast to look for migrants, I couldn’t go to some of the spots in Norfolk that I love to visit in the spring to see and hear birds such as Nightingale and Common Redstart. I cancelled planned trips to Armenia and Cyprus. Like everyone else it was stay home and exercise once a day locally. I turned my attention to the back garden and decided that if I was to keep sane then I needed to expand my birding horizons and try something different. In early April 2020, I purchased an Olympus PCM recorder, downloaded Audacity to my laptop and stepped forth into the world of NocMigging.

Due to lockdown restrictions, Graham was unable to visit some of his usual sites, where he hears Nightingale and Common Redstart, each year. Photo: Graham Clarke

I followed Sean’s simple instructions and placed the recorder in a plastic container with a layer of cling film over it to keep the rain off. I struggled at first in several respects. Using Audacity takes a bit of practice, learning how to scroll through the files, how to copy and paste any interesting recordings so you can share them, removing noise and opening and closing files or saving them. But Seán was on hand to provide tips and guidance. Using the PCM recorder also takes a little practice, its more trial and error than anything. What settings to use, remembering to charge it and remove any unwanted files so it doesn’t run out of juice or space the next time you set it out to record. In time I figured all these things out and also got steadily quicker at scrolling through the files. It’s funny how you start to recognise certain sonograms, dogs barking, car horns tooting, people talking, even next door’s cat’s bell. They all became familiar to me and could quickly be ignored.

The trusty, handheld recorder, jug and cling film combination – an ideal nocmig startup. Photo: Seán Ronayne

In the spring, I recorded birds such as Golden Plover, Coot, Moorhen, Water Rail, Wigeon and Teal. All garden ticks. Each time I found a new recording I got more and more excited about NocMigging. My routine would be to bring the recorder first thing in the morning and later that day after work and dinner, I would start downloading and opening the files from the previous evening. It wasn’t a chore, in fact I looked forward to it every time. Things quietened down in the summer, as you’d expect. During that time I splashed out on a Dodotronic parabola. Sean had captured so many amazing recordings using his and Alan Dalton who we interviewed on the Podcast (listen to this incredibly entertaining episode here) had also produced some amazing recordings using a parabola.

Moorhen – much to the surprise of many newcomers, this is one of the most common NocMig species in spring, over Ireland and the UK, regardless of whether you live near a suitable body of water. Photo: Seán Ronayne

I started NocMigging again in August. Things were relatively slow at first, but I picked up a single call on the night of 1st September which piqued my interest immediately. I consulted with Seán who suspected Ortolan and in turn contacted Magnus Robb who replied to say ‘it sounds like a bona fide Ortolan to me’. To the best of my knowledge this is the first Norfolk nocmig record of this species. You can read and hear more about this record at the following: Sounds in the Night.

That certainly spurred me on and as the months of September and October unfolded, NocMigging really got exciting. I recorded big movements of Redwing and became very familiar with the difference in how Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Redwings sound and how the sonograms look. My favourite recording so far was made in October 2020, during a night of heavy Redwing passage. I love the background sound of a local football match as masses of Redwing pile over.

Redwing is a common winter visitor to Ireland and the UK, and can readily be heard calling at night as they arrive en-masse. Photo: Seán Ronayne

I also recorded lots of wader movement including Lapwing, Common and Green Sandpiper, Golden Plover again and Dunlin. The other surprise was just how much Tawny Owl activity was going on around my house. I hadn’t noticed this before and I think the parabola was probably helping me out here. This recording was of a bird hooting from the back garden.

Considering I live in an urban area, I was surprised and delighted to also record Barn Owl on several occasions.

Other highlights included a juvenile Sandwich Tern – quite a surprise for a Norwich garden.

I started leaving the parabola out after dawn and in the first few hours of daylight I picked up Crossbill, Fieldfare, Brambling and Redpoll.

Graham’s resident Tawny Owls are making recording worthwhile for him even in the winter season. Photo: Andrew 3457

I have continued NocMigging into December, but it has, as expected, gotten quieter. Tawny Owls are still vocal and the odd Redwing flies over. One of the main reasons I haven’t NocMigged in winter is because of wind and rain and the risk of that to my equipment. But, once again spring is around the corner and birds will start moving soon.

After missing out last spring, Graham is hopeful he’ll get a chance to record Common Redstart, in Norfolk, this year. Photo: Graham Clarke

NocMigging has saved my birding: for several years I was struggling a little with birding. I wasn’t learning anything new. I was jaded with the scene in the UK, with the nastiness on social media, the crowds at twitches and all that. Lockdown forced a change in direction for me. It revealed lots of surprises and I realised how little I knew about calls and sounds and how steep a learning curve I travelled in the first year. I pay far more attention to anything that flies over me calling. I owe Seán a big word of thanks, his enthusiasm was infectious and his support and guidance crucial. As was Harry Hussey’s. Magnus Robb and Alan Dalton were inspiring also. I’m very excited to record some local species this spring, Garden Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Cuckoo and Reed Warbler are all local breeders and COVID-permitting, I’d love to record Woodlark, Common Redstart and Nightingale in Norfolk this spring. I’m just getting started!