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Recording the birds at Fingle Woods

Surround Sound – A Sense of the Winter Woods

Of all the seasons in the woods, winter may be a quiet time but it’s not completely silent. Life goes on through the colder months and, walking through the woods at this time of year can be a treat for the senses. As long as you are wrapped up warm and have a hot drink at hand, the sounds of the animals and elements provide the clues about what life is like out there on a chilly day.

I arranged to meet Tom Williams, our resident gadget man, on a blustery day in January. Among his many bits of techie kit, he has some sound recording equipment. We set off for a walk to “see” what we could hear and create the first chapter in a Fingle sound scape for winter. Tom’s first choice of microphone was a “shotgun” or directional microphone. They work by excluding the sound around them and recording just what is there in the target zone.

Wind on the hill (click > to play the sound clip)

Tom set up the directional mic among the trees

Tom set up the directional mic among the trees

Higher up on the wooded hillside, we tried a few things out. Walking through leaves and squelching in mud immediately brought back the child like fun of being in the woods but the blustery conditions were making life difficult for us and the birds as well, so we set off down to the river side where the steep valley offered us some shelter.

Walking in leaves

On the muddy track

Quite often, sound is the first sense that alerts you to the presence of animals in the wood and, way up in the tops of the tall conifers, a group of small birds were foraging. The gentle, continuous chatter of goldcrests and coal tits gave us a chance to stand and listen. For me, their soft communication calls are evocative, reminiscent of many winter woodland walks.

Foraging goldcrests and coal tits in the high canopy

Tom’s microphone capturing the ethereal calls of small woodland birds

Tom’s microphone capturing the ethereal calls of small woodland birds

The calming sound of flowing water is always present on the banks of the river Teign, so it was time to relax, stop and listen and let the river do the rushing. A tumbling Fingle stream had a different “feel” … though there is less water, it sounded very dynamic, bubbling down its narrow gorge.

Relax by the river

Tom recording the small stream of effervescent bubbles

Tom recording the small stream of effervescent bubbles

In a matter of seconds, a distant throb became an earth-shaking boom for a moment while a military helicopter thundered above the tree tops; the only Wildcat seen in these woods! Then, it was just a distant rumble and peace was restored. Further down the valley we captured the crispy rattling of some dry beech leaves. A very different sound or “texture” to their soft spring rustle.

Crisp beech leaves hanging on through the winter

Our next stop was to set up the recording equipment under the mighty Grand fir trees in Hall’s Cleave. A range of different habitats was likely to be home to a number of different birds and the stereo microphone was suitable for the more sheltered conditions where a robin and a wren shared the undergrowth. Ravens were busy above the trees, partnering up before their nesting season and a small bullfinch was heard in the conifers a short distance away.

A pair of Ravens

A pair of Ravens

Listen carefully for the bullfinches before the ravens arrive!

While the woodland sounds were being recorded in the chilly winter breeze, Tom and I kept warm with some soup from the Kelly Kettle. Even in January its worth taking a trip to the woods to listen for the birds and other woodland harmonies. This week some early nesters are establishing their territorial boundaries while others will be waiting for the spring. Keep listening, it could get quite lively!

Soup of the day

Written by Matt Parkins

Sound recordings and video by Tom Williams

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