So it's time for round two! After having such a great time last year visiting the Black River Valley in central Sweden I decided to go again this year. As I mentioned in my blog post from last year, the trip is organised by Stefan Taylor with help from Kari Knight and is aimed at sound recordists or just people with an appreciation of nature. The area has been designated a European Natura 2000 site outstanding for its nature and wildlife and is a wonderful place to record. What I loved so much last time about the area was the amazing moss and lichen covered pine forests and beautiful lakes and of course the quiet!
This time my goals were to get a good recording of the Capercaillie lek and to get a whole host of different surround sound ambiences. To say I was excited about returning to Sweden would be an understatement. I have had a long run of work shooting various corporate videos and working from my studio, so I was really looking forward to some time in the forest away from it all.
I also recently decided to upgrade my mkh 40/mkh 30 mid-side stereo rig to a double mid side rig with two matched mkh 8040s. This was partly because I have been doing more and more work involving surround so this felt like the next logical step. I chose this setup mainly for its portability, small size and flexibility. Double mid side recording can be decoded to a variety of different formats from mono to 5.1. I am also friends with the recordist George Vlad https://mindful-audio.com/ who uses this rig regularly and is happy with it. I often find the best way to find out if a piece of kit is going to suit your needs is to talk to someone who uses it regularly. I tend not to trust online reviews anymore as you can never tell if the person has been sponsored by the the company who make the piece of kit.
I have to say I actually prefer the sound of the Schoeps DMS rigs but the cost, and stories of problems with moisture put me off as a lot of the recording I do is in Scotland where days without rain are a lot less common than days with rain. I also often record in countries that have very high humidity and didn't want to risk this effecting my recordings.
I decided to buy a Cinela pianissimo to house all three mics. Matt and Nathan at Wendy's broadcast made me up cables with helpful colour coding so it is clear which channel is which. All my initial tests seemed to go very well so now it was time to try it out in the wilderness. The weather looked like it was going to be quite mixed so it seemed as if I would be putting the Cinela through its paces. The rig is shown below. Its a thing of beauty and I was amazed at how good it was at dealing with the wind. Even with the fluffy wind jammer off!
After arriving I headed straight out into the forest. There was a lovely evening chorus going on with lots of distant song thrush singing with a few woodcock passing every now and then. Sunday I heard some heavy breathing and a loud squealing sound and two wild boar marched into the clearing I was in. I smelled them before I saw them! They viewed me cautiously for a few minutes and then ran off back into the forest with a loud grunt. I was still pretty tired from my journey so I headed back to the house for a dinner of Swedish meatballs prepared by Kari and a glass of wine. This was a good chance to meet the other people on the trip with me. There was Daan Hendricks, a sound designer and sound library creator, Stijn Demeulenaere, a sound artist, Tony Fulford, a fellow member of WSRS and bird expert, Juan Monge a sound editor from Spain, Stefan Pigeon who used to work for Roland and now runs the website www.mynoise.net and Michael Garner a sound recordist who is also a member of WSRS and Ben Chinn who is a ecology student doing work experience with Stefan. It was a great chance to talk to like minded people about the intricacies of recording wildlife.
The next evening at around 5pm I headed for the caper hide. I setup my mics in a spot near where a caper has been seen lekking the previous morning and ran cables back to the hide. I disguised the mics with some scrim and covered the cables with some leaves and Moss being careful that nothing was knocking against the mics. The capers at this lek site can sometimes be active from around 7.30pm till 9.30pm and then from around 4am till 12pm which meant there was a chance I could be in the hide for around 16.5 hours. So I prepared myself for a long stay. Below is the hide I was in and the mics.
Right on cue at around 7.30 a caper landed in a tall tree above my mics with an almighty crash. They seem to deliberately make as much noise as possible when they arrive to roost to show of their size and strength to females and potential rivals. This caper called and flapped his wings repeatedly for eventually settling down to roost at around 9am creating a lovely black silhouette against the light blue night sky. Woodcock passed by and I could hear snipe drumming late into the night.
I fell asleep around 11pm and then woke again at 3.30am. I checked my recorder was still running and that all the levels seemed ok and then lay back and listened as the dawn chorus started. The caper was still perched on the same branch high in a nearby tree. Suddenly at around 4.15am he flew down onto the moss below and started to call. I could hear other capers in the distance in all directions and every time one called..
My caper would respond by calling, flapping it's wings and leaping in the air in the direction of the calls. He was roughly 20m away from the hide and for the rest time I got the chance to really see for myself how colourful capers are. Like many birds, from a distance they just look black but when you look closer they have amazing metallic greens and blues and all shades in between. They also two bright white shoulder spots, which are very helpful for spotting them in low light, and wonderful bright red patch above their eyes. Below is a photo by Stefan Taylor of the caper near the hide I was in.
This male was a particularly impressive specimen with a large hooked beak. The size of this hook and how curved it is gives you a rough idea of the caper's age and this caper had a massive beak with a huge hook so he was obviously pretty old.
I got a good recording of him arriving in the trees to roost but, although he was displaying for quite a long time the recordings I got of the display song were a bit distant sounding.
I was getting closer to getting the recording I wanted but wasn't quite there yet so I decided to have another shot the next night at a slightly different location. I setup my double mid side rig and disguised it with some scrim and branches again. I think this is always worth doing as birds seem to come closer and you get less alarm calls in your recordings when the rig is well hidden and blends in with the environment.
I spotted a likely display area a hide some mics on the moss so I also setup my Olympus LS-14 and a pair of Clippy EM172 mics. One thing I have discovered whilst trying to get a good caper recording is that the display call they make actually doesn't carry very far so to get a decent recording you have to get the mics very close.
I have figured out that with both of the setups I use I can get around 16 hours recording time. This turned out to be very handy as we tended to setup the mics at around 6pm and then pick them up around 10am the next morning to be sure we didn't disturb the capers.
I set both recorders running, checked I had formatted the cards, and check I had pressed record and headed back to the house for some dinner. It was reassuring to discover that all the other recordists have a deep paranoia about whether they have pressed record when they are leaving mics unattended. I now tend to check around three or more times! The house we were staying in was a traditional Swedish farms house that was warm and comfy and a lovely place to head back to to backup cards and take stock.
The next morning I went back and picked up the recorders and mics and headed home to see what I had. I tend to look at my recordings through a spectrogram as I find it saves time when finding interesting bits of sound. I have also started to be able to quickly recognize calls and can put in markers to help with editing later. To my excitement there were some really good looking recordings and when I listed I was happy to find that they sounded as good as they looked. Below is a mono version of a recording with the Clippy EM172 mics and the Olympus LS-14. Its a short clip of the whole recording.
Early the next morning at around 3am we went to a nearby forest to record the dawn chorus I got a few nice ambience recordings and then right as we were leaving I spotted a pigmy owl in a nearby tree. They are the world smallest owl but often take on prey their own size. Below is a picture by Stefan Taylor.
For the final night I headed out on a canoe to try and get some good surround sound recordings of frogs and toads calling. There was also a bittern on the lake near where we were staying and I have no good recordings of these so that was another target for the night. Bitterns make a very deep bassy call with three clicks before it. These click sounds are the inhaling air into their a huge air bladder in their neck. Sadly I didn't manage to get a recording of the bittern on its own but I still like the recording.
I absolutely love this way of recording. I wedge the tripod legs at the front end of the canoe and the slowly and carefully paddle to where I hear a sound I want to record. I then wedge the canoe on some reeds so that I don't get a moving sound image. It's proved a good way to get close to some species I would otherwise have had real trouble getting close to. It's takes a bit of nerve as I realised I had around £6,000 worth of kit in the canoe but I think as long as you don't go out when it's too windy it tends to be fine.
I ended up staying out on the lake till around 2 am and just headed back when I started to get too cold. It's was a very bright night with a full moon and I went to sleep with the sounds of bittern and frogs swirling round my head. The next day I headed home tired but happy.
I plan to make a sound library from all these recordings but i think it might take one more trip before I have enough high quality and varied recording to put a library together. It's good to have finally ticked capercaillie off the list though.