Seamus is one of Ireland’s original sound-recordists who was seen with a parabola-in-hand well before it was socially acceptable, even in birding standards! As a result, Seamus has collected an enviable library of Irish bird sounds, including some very rare wind-strewn vagrants
One of my best memories growing up was laying in my bed on balmy autumn nights listening to the roosting calls of Curlew at a nearby pond as I settled down for the night. As time went by, the adventures of Gerrit van Gelderen in his television program ‘To the Waters and Wild’ inspired more interest in the natural world and answered some questions, but caused many more to be asked, which led to me getting my first field guide but also trying to do some sound recording with cutting edge technology of the time in the form of a cassette recorder and basic microphone. This gave very limited results and could only be used in calm conditions. Later on, when I bought a video recorder, it had the added advantage of recording sound at the same time. But, it wasn’t until I was on a birding trip to Madeira, where I met Magnus Robb and heard about the Sound Approach, that I saw the possibilities with the new equipment that was available for use that I really got into it.
So what was the best gear to get? I didn’t know anyone personally who recorded and the equipment used by the Sound Approach was top of the range, and I was not prepared to divert so much of my available birding funds to it at that stage, so after spending quite a bit of time investigating the possible options, I decided on getting a Tascam portable field recorder. For me, most of my sound recording is done as part of my normal birding, so I was looking for something that I could carry with me and when I was out in the field and if I heard something unusual then I could stop and record it. This worked fine and I used it often while out especially when looking for passerines, but like everything in life, after a while you try to improve on it and the recorder on its own wasn’t enough. So, at this stage I jumped in and got a Telinga parabolic reflector. This is an amazing piece of kit, as it amplifies the calls of birds from a small area and it opened up a whole new world of sound for me. However it has some drawbacks – the sheer size and bulk of it being the main one and like all microphones the wind is a killer even with protective coverings. So, I continued looking for a better system and tried out a smaller microphone which I could carry with me in a small bag when out in the field. I finally decided on a Sennheiser MEK400 which was designed for use with a DSLR camera, but works very well and is quite resistant to wind noise and is the set up I use along with an Olympus LS-12 recorder most often nowadays. I use this when I am out either holding it by hand, or, as I have a small flexible GorillaPod tripod attached, by placing it just I front of me on the ground so I have my hands free to use binoculars and camera.
As I’m sure most birders would agree there is nothing like the experience of seeing and hearing new birds for yourself and its even better if you can record the experience in some way such as photography or sound recording. Then, after a few years, when a memory of the event has faded, the photos or recording can be used to recall the experience and this is what happens when I listen to the recording of a Semipalmated Plover which was at Tacumshin, Co. Wexford, in June 2016. First there is the Semi-p and then an obliging Ringed Plover to show the contrast between the two calls.
While in Russia I woke during the night and heard an Arctic Warbler singing nearby so got out my gear and started to record, however whilst listening back, I could hear one of the other birders nearby snoring so I wont add that one to the list of memorable recordings for you here today! However, I have a nice one of a Red-flaked Bluetail singing nearby late that day.
On another occasion I was lucky enough to see a Dark-eyed Junco from North America on Dursey Island and managed to catch some recordings of it in song on a lovey June day as it tried to attract a mate. However, for this poor lost waif the nearest member of its species were many thousands of kilometers away. All of these recordings are much easier to visualize if you are able to convert the audio to a Spectrogram which gives a visual representation of the sound and I use Raven Lite (free software which you can download from Cornell Lab of Ornithology ) to do this.
The important thing is to get a basic recorder and get out there and give it a try!