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Surround Sound II: Wood-be Winter Heroes

The Dartmoor winter hasn’t quite left us but spring hasn’t quite begun either. There are some clues of the shift in the seasons around Fingle Woods in early March and, last week, Tom Williams took his sound equipment out again to record the maturing soundscape of the woodland around the Teign valley. Walking around the various compartments of wooded habitat we thought we had found the ideal spot; ancient oak woods nearby, a patch of open scrub between a stand of beech on one side and a fringe of conifer on the other. In this diverse and interesting spot, what could possibly go wrong? Well, Tom’s first recording was a little more mechanical than we had hoped. The dominant sound in this neck of the woods was the machinery clearing up the last remnants of the winter’s forestry work.

woodland restoration in action

We were determined to find some different woodland heroes of the feathered variety so we moved along the hillside to a patch of boggy wet woodland. Where the conifers meet the broadleaves a group of siskins chattered while searching for food. Many of these treetop dwellers are difficult to see against the pale sky but occasional flashes of yellow confirmed their identity.

goldcrest and siskins

Robins and wrens have been striving for sustenance all winter and are beginning to get more vocal at this time of year. In the early 19th century, John Clare was an agricultural labourer who developed a life-long talent for poetry. He created a catalogue of the wildlife within the changing English landscape and, with keen observations, wrote about many species and, in The Wren, showed his admiration for the songs of the smaller, less glamourous woodland birds …

The Wren
Why is the cuckoo’s melody preferred
And nightingale’s rich song so fondly praised
In poet’s rhymes? Is there no other bird
Of nature’s minstrelsy that oft hath raised
One’s heart to extacy and mirth as well?
I judge not how another’s taste is caught:
With mine, there’s other birds that bear the bell
Whose song hath crowds of happy memories brought.
Such the wood-robin singing in the dell
And little wren that many a time hath sought
Shelter from showers in huts where I did dwell
In early spring the tennant of the plain
Tenting my sheep and still they come to tell
The happy stories of the past again.

Tom searching for a place to set up the microphone


coal tit with a passing raven

Before we left the wet woodland, Tom’s stereo microphone recorded a number of small woodland birds. While we sat still for a minute or two, the birds gained the confidence to sing, and we had time to admire the wild daffodils.

wet woodland

Heading down the valley, we stopped to listen to a song thrush. Coupled with his sound recording skills, Tom’s knowledge of bird calls is excellent. He explained how the thrush, sitting high in a tree, “repeats a phrase of its song before moving on to another”. Listen for yourself …

song thrush

Tom in reflective mood

Next to the river, Upperton weir pool retained its usual calming tone. We admired the deep, reflective clarity of the water while recording the weir and surrounding bird life.

Upperton weir pool

Some blustery spring weather was moving in over Mardon Down as we set up our last stop of the day. The birds had a few minutes to finish their song before the wind whipped up and the rain came and washed out their melodies.

More clarity than reality – reflections in the weir pool

song of the woodland edge

rain drops

As we listened to the birds it occurred to us that these species were those that had not migrated; they had all toughed it out through the wintry woods and were now making an early start to find a mate and a nesting site. These indomitable winter heroes were singing to sort out their territories before the migratory star species arrive from far-distant warmer climes in the coming months. Keep listening!

Later in the week, Tom captured the dawn chorus. Listen to the way the calls and songs build their intensity and urgency. A good pair of stereo headphones or speakers really enhance the listening experience … but you can’t beat being there!

dawn chorus

by Matt Parkins
Sound recordings: Tom Williams

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