I grew up in a small village called Balmaclellan in south west Scotland so I was glad to find out that the Wildlife Sound Recording Society winter field meeting was going to be held a Caerlaverock WWT reserve near Dumfries. This reserve was the first I went to when I was a child and I have been regularly since then to record.
I have also recently been doing a project with a couple of friends, composer Stuart Macphearson and film maker Emma Dove, about barnacle geese, so I have been going to the reserve for this reason too. Also, as I am based in Edinburgh, the fact it is in Scotland was a massive plus. Party because Scotland is just a much better country than England but also because it meant I wouldn't have to travel as far.
I was staying in the farm house which has nice comfy clean rooms and a great kitchen where we could all meet up and have a blether. It was a great place to get to know new people I haven't met before and compare notes with my fellow sound geeks. More importantly it was warm! This fact became more and more important as the weekend went on as the temperature dropped well below freezing as the weekend went on.
The first night I decided to waste no time and to get out recording as soon as possible. As soon as it got dark I setup a pair of Clippy EM172 mics and a small Olympus LS-14 recorder in a dry bag near one of the many badger sets on the reserve. This is what I tend to use as a rough and ready rig for doing unattended recordings as you can get around 14 hrs or so out of a couple of Eneloop pro AA batteries with this rig. I also use a sound devices 633 and a mkh30/mkh40 Mid-Side rig but I don't leave this rig out unattended quite as much for obvious reasons.
The first night was slightly windy but there were moments of calm through the night and during one of these periods of calm I managed to get a nice recording of a badger investigating my mics. Sadly no vocalizations but some very nice sniffs and movements. The recording is below -
Anyone who has recorded at Caerlaverock before knows about the dreaded milking machine. This is a machine in the farm yard which comes on early in the morning and makes a right old racket. Very annoying! The only way to get around this is to setup your mics at the very far end of the reserve or to try and get recordings that are so close to the subject that the signal to noise ratio means that the sound from the milking machine wasn't as much of a problem.
I decided to go for the latter. So my goal for this trip was to try and get really close up recordings of flocks of barnacles grazing. I had noticed on previous trips that barnacles make a very strange kind of humming drone as they graze. The sound they make is almost like a distant plane if you hear it from far away, and it confused me a few times during the day but when you hear the sound close up it is loads of small contact calls between the geese as they graze.
So early the next morning I decided to leave both sets of mics out in a location where I had seen the barnacles the day before. When it got fully dark I setup my Clippy EM172 mics and Olympus LS- 14 about 10m into the field. I used the Chris Watson technique of placing the mics at either end of a wire coat hanger and the buried the recorder, cable and coat hanger in the grass and earth. I checked the mics were working and the levels were set correct and then left it at around 4am. I also setup my mkh30/mkh40 rig on a long stereo cable which I ran back to one of the hides and plugged into my SD 633.
I then quietly headed back to the farm house. Which gave me a chance to have a look at the sky. It was an amazingly clear and still night and you could see the milky way right across the sky. This is one thing I have always loved about south west Scotland; the sky is so clear and free of light pollution. Both Richard Youell and George Vlad got some great long exposure shots of the night sky.
I am not generally a fan of unattended recording, as I like the experience of listening and tuning in to the environment, but I had been very busy with a string of film shoots before the meeting so I wanted to try and treat this trip as a bit of a holiday and to make sure I got enough sleep and didn't end up driving back up to Edinburgh feeling more tired than when I arrived! So I decided to make a exception this time and leave my mics out.
Around 9am the next morning I went to check on my mics. I wouldn't be able to collect them again till it got dark to avoid disturbance but I wanted to see if the flocks of geese were anywhere near them. To my great excitement they were! Through my binoculars I could see that a large flock of geese were grazing right of top of where I had hidden the EM172s. I stayed for around 2 hrs watches as the flock moved right across the area where I had placed my mics. Below is a small clip from the recording I got.
I went back to the farm house to eat some lunch and on the way got mobbed by a small robin who obviously got regularly fed by people. He seemed very upset that I had nothing to offer so the next time I came past to check my mics again later in the day, I took some dried mealworms. He was very tame and would even fly up and sit on your hand if you stayed very still.
I walked along to the Saltcot Merse Observatory and watched the sunset and then headed back for dinner. When I got back to the farm house one of the local badgers had arrived. The rangers put out peanut butter on the rocks and posts round the front of the farm house and a rather portly looking badger had arrived to eat his dinner. I was a great opportunity to see badgers up close.
By 10.30pm it was dark enough to collect my mics so I headed out to pick them up, trying not to step on the icey puddles that had formed on the path. I did my best but there were a couple of loud crashes as I put my foot down in the wrong place. I retrieved my mics and went back to listen to the recordings.
I had a few decent passes of whooper swans and barnacle gees on my mid-side rig but by far the best were the recordings on the Olympus LS-14. The geese had come so close you could clearly hear them eating the grass next to the mics. The recording is actually quite funny to listen to as you can hear how much sqabbling goes on between individuals as the flock grazes.
Sadly I had to head back up to Edinburgh on the Sunday night, as I had a job on the Monday morning but I drove home feeling very pleased and glad to have got the chance to see some old friends and make some new ones.