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141 posts categorized "Wildlife sounds"

04 March 2019

Recording of the week: spontaneous mimicry on a yorkshire moor

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This week's selection comes from Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds.

Though many songbirds are capable of mimicry, it’s fair to say that some are more talented than others. The European Blackbird is one such example.  From the songs of other birds to the sounds of car alarms, the blackbird is not afraid of stepping up to the mark and having a go.

But why bother wasting time mimicking other sounds when you’ve got a perfectly good song of your own? If you’ve ever listened to a singing blackbird, you’ll know that its voice is a wonderful thing, full of passion and flair. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. As male birds use their songs to attract a mate and ward off potential rivals, it never hurts to have a few tricks under your wing. Being able to mimic other sounds and incorporate them into your song could mean the difference between a successful breeding season and a frustrating few months.

2021012_app_si_C_IV_909Male Blackbird by Wilhelm von Wright (Finish National Gallery, CCO via Europeana)

The following recording of a blackbird, made by Richard Margoschis in 1992, is a special one, not just because the male is able to accurately mimic the call of a nearby bird, but that he appears to do so spontaneously. While singing from a hawthorn bush on the edge of a yorkshire moor, our blackbird is accompanied by the mournful 'pu-we' whistles of a nearby Golden Plover. As the plover continues, our male stops, listens and then gives his own rendition of the call.

Blackbird spontaneous mimicry of a Golden Plover (BL ref 33668)

Was this just a one-off? Or was our blackbird so chuffed with his efforts that he decided to make this imitation a permanent feature of his song? Unfortunately we'll never know. But what we can say is that this little bird gets ten out of ten for effort.

Follow @CherylTipp and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

This recording has been digitised as part of the library's Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

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07 February 2019

The tale of the seven whistlers

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By Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds.

The natural world is one of the cornerstone themes of British folkloric tradition. From familiar animals to mysterious creatures, our local tales and superstitions are full of references to nature.

For centuries birds, and especially their voices, have been a particularly strong focus of traditional beliefs. Depending on the community, the cry of a bird could mean anything from the approach of stormy weather to an untimely death.   

One tale which appears repeatedly in British and Irish folklore is the legend of the seven whistlers. Though occasionally linked to witches or other demonic entities, the seven whistlers were generally believed to be a group of mysterious birds, flying together at night, whose unearthly calls were considered a portent of impending disaster.

Coal miners were particularly susceptible to these supposed messengers of doom. In 1862, locals in the Northumbrian village of Hartley proclaimed to have heard the seven whistlers the night before a pit disaster which claimed the lives of 204 miners. Over a decade later, in 1874, the Coventry Herald reported on a mass walkout at the Bedworth collieries:

"On Monday morning, large numbers of the miners employed at some of the Bedworth collieries in North Warwickshire, giving way to a superstition which has long prevailed amongst their class, refused to descend the coal pits in which they are employed. The men are credulous enough to believe that certain nocturnal sounds, which are, doubtless, produced by flocks of night birds in their passage across the country, are harbingers of some impending colliery disaster. During Sunday night, it was stated that these sounds, which have been designated “the seven whistlers” had been distinctly heard in the neighbourhood of Bedworth, and the result was that the following morning, when work should have resumed, many of the men positively refused to descend the pits.”

Hartley pit disasterHartley Colliery Disaster: the dead are brought up to their families (L'llustration, 1862, p 101)

But what were these birds that had the power to strike such fear into the hearts of those who heard their melancholy cries? Almost all accounts point the finger at wading birds, though the exact species differs depending on the region. Some believed the culprits to be groups of curlew or whimbrel. For others it was the golden plover or lapwing. Though this selection may seem an arbitrary one, there is a common thread which links these species together; their shrill, whistling calls.

Curlew 'curlee' call, recorded on the Derbyshire / Staffordshire border by Alan Burbidge (BL ref 144681)

Whimbrel flight calls, recorded in the Scottish Highlands by Richard Margoschis (BL ref 43516) 

Lapwing 'peewit' call, recorded in Hampshire by Phil Riddett (BL ref 66907)

When listening to the lapwing’s plaintive ‘peewit’ or the curlew’s haunting ‘curlee’, it’s quite easy to see how these birds became entwined with the tale of the seven whistlers. Other birds were occasionally added to the mix, most notably wigeon and swifts, however the migratory nature of these species meant that the association was debunked by most believers. The sharp whistles of wigeon could only be heard during the winter months, while the piercing screams of swifts were a sound of spring and summer. This just didn’t tally with the timing of some local tragedies, whereas birds like the curlew & lapwing could be heard all year round.

CurlewIllustration of a curlew taken from British Ornithology; being the history, with a coloured representation of every known species of British birds, George Graves, 1811

Despite being considered envoys of calamity, birds linked to the seven whistlers don’t appear to have suffered any negative repercussions. They weren’t persecuted or hunted down. But neither were they revered. They were simply listened to.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, superstitions such as these were more prevalent in rural communities with strong ties to the natural world. Though many people, especially those in towns and cities, scoffed at the idea of birds as omens of death and disaster, a Daily Telegraph comment from 1874 reminded readers to look to themselves before casting aspersions on the beliefs of others. Which is a lesson to us all.

"Sensible people should, of course, hold all such absurdities in contempt; but how many ostensibly sensible people are there who entertain the most peculiar ideas concerning Friday, and spilling the salt, and crossing the knives and walking under a ladder? It is natural to laugh at the superstitions of other folks, and to abide very earnestly by our own."

Follow @CherylTipp for all the latest wildlife & environmental news from the British Library.

04 February 2019

Recording of the week: life in a rock pool

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This week's selection comes from Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife and Environmental Sounds.

Life in a rock pool is not for the faint-hearted. These miniature ecosystems, found in the intertidal zone, have evolved to endure extreme condition fluctuations caused by the daily movements of the tide. From full submersion to being left high and dry for hours at a time, the inhabitants of this changeable environment need to be resilient in order to survive. 

As with other marine gastropods, the Common Limpet (Patella vulgata) has mastered the art of rock pool life. The following recording, made by Peter Toll on Bantham Beach in Devon, captures the rasping sound of these conical molluscs feeding on algae attached to the rocky surface.

Rock pool atmosphere recorded in Devon, England by Peter Toll (BL reference 212536)

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Two underwater microphones, known as hydrophones, were used to listen in on the sounds of this otherwise silent world. To listen to more underwater recordings, head on over to the Environment & Nature section of British Library Sounds.

Follow @CherylTipp and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

14 January 2019

Recording of the week: starling mimicry

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This week's selection comes from Greg Green, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

Learning to identify bird song can be tricky at the best of times; to the untrained ear it can all sound remarkably similar. To add to the confusion, many birds like to show off by mimicking the songs of other species, and some are very good at it.

Starling

In the UK, our best copycat is the starling (Sturnus vulgaris). These incredible birds are like little avian hip hop artists. They take in ‘samples’ of the songs and calls around them and remix them! A typical starling song is very complex, consisting of multiple layers, and can incorporate song fragments from five or more species. Sometimes the song is reproduced faithfully, other times the rhythm is chopped up, repeated and mixed in with other sounds. It’s not just other birds they mimic too. They have been recorded mimicking mammals, car alarms, telephone ringtones, and even human speech.

This recording from Patrick Sellar showcases just some of the starling’s seemingly limitless repertoire. Patrick identifies the songs and calls of jackdaw, brambling, buzzard, blackbird, house sparrow, wren, arctic tern, northern bullfinch and willow tit.

WS5532 C10 - Common Starling mimicry recorded by Patrick Sellar on 1 st May 1978 (BL ref 07111) 

This spectrogram shows the similar harmonic content between the flight call of the buzzard and the starling’s mimicry.

Buzzard and starling mimicry

Follow @gregegreen,  @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

This recording has been digitised as part of the library's Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

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11 December 2018

The Christmas robin

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Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds writes:

There’s no mistaking it; the festive season is well and truly upon us. Christmas trees, laden with baubles and twinkling lights, can be seen popping up in windows all over the country and it won’t be long before we start coming home to find Christmas cards lying on the doormat. Chances are that at least one of these messages from loved ones will have a robin gracing the front cover.

One of the strongest associations between robins and Christmas cards can be traced back to the days of the Victorian postie. For a time,  Royal Mail postmen wore bright red uniforms which soon earned them the nickname 'robins'. As the exchange of Christmas cards grew in popularity, depictions of robins holding cards in their beaks began to appear. A trend was born and, over a century later, robins are still one of the most favoured images on the market.

Robin-postA Christmas card from 1934 (National Museums Liverpool, accession number 1976.561)

As well as adorning our mantelpieces, the robin is also responsible for the snatches of birdsong that can be heard in our parks and gardens at this time of year. Unlike most other songbirds who fall silent after the breeding season has come to an end, the robin continues to make himself heard. His song does change depending on the season; the winter song definitely has a frostier feel than the sweeter tune we hear in the spring. This may have something to do with the changing function of the song. In the spring months, the male robin has love on his mind. He is looking for a mate and, though he still needs to defend his territory against potential rivals, his song has a smoother quality. When winter strikes however, romance goes out of the window. It's all about survival, which leaves no room for any sweet talk.

The following recording is an example of the robin's winter song, recorded in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire by Nigel Tucker. Don't be fooled by the charming melody though - if you were a robin he would try to take you down in a second.

Robin winter song

Follow @CherylTipp for all the latest wildlife news.

20 November 2018

In the depths of a wasp nest

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Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds writes:

The Common Wasp (Vespula vulgaris) gets a pretty bad rap. We’re all in love with bees but, when it comes to wasps, we’re not so enamoured. To be fair, they don’t help themselves. They fall into your pint, pester you at picnics and seem to sting you just for the hell of it. Despite these little niggles, wasps do play an essential role in the smooth running of our ecosystems.

As predators they help control pests which would otherwise wreak havoc in our crop fields and gardens. Their quest for nectar makes them valuable pollinators too; as they move from flower to flower, they transfer life-giving grains of pollen that become stuck to their hairy bodies.

Martin Cooper_1200px-Common_Wasp_(Vespula_(Paravespula)_vulgaris)_(8655493612)

Their social lives are just as interesting. Every spring the queen emerges from hibernation and goes in search of a suitable site for the colony’s new nest. Once selected, she begins to lay the foundations of the nest, using chewed wood fibres to create a core into which she will eventually lay her eggs. Upon hatching, the newly-developed adults take over the building of the nest, leaving the queen to oversee the colony and produce more eggs.

The following recording takes you into the very heart of a working wasp nest. The constant buzz and crackle of activity is accompanied by a repetitive fluttering of wings as workers busy themselves with fanning the nest's precious eggs. This fanning action helps circulate the air inside the nest, providing a fresh and cool environment for the colony to thrive in.

Wasp nest activity recorded in Dorset, England on 1 Aug 2000 by Kyle Turner

Though it seems unlikely that wasps will ever hold the same place in our hearts as bees do, there can be no doubt that these little insects are a fascinating and essential part of the natural world. So the next time a wasp takes a keen interest in your beer or slice of sponge, try not to judge it too harshly.

Follow @CherylTipp and @soundarchive for all the latest news. This recording is being preserved as part of the Library's Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

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05 November 2018

Recording of the week: the song of the Montezuma Oropendola

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This week's selection comes from Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife and Environmental Sounds. 

The sound archive is home to over 250,000 wildlife recordings from all over the world. Over 100,000 of these are recordings of birds. As a curator it’s impossible to have a favourite when surrounded by so many choice examples, however I do find myself returning to certain recordings time and time again.

One of my ultimate favourites is the song of the Montezuma Oropendola (Psarocolius montezuma). This central American songbird inhabits lowland forests and plantations from Mexico to Panama. Individuals congregate in basket-like nests which hang down from the canopy like baubles on a Christmas tree. The male song is an increasingly excitable stream of gurgling notes, produced as part of an acrobatic mating display. Male birds deliver their song from a favoured perch while flipping upside down and waving their tail feathers in the air. Some have been known to get so carried away that they've actually fallen off of their perch. Embarrassing. 

The following song was recorded in Heredia Province, Costa Rica on the 2nd March 1985 by Richard Ranft.

Montezuma Oropendola song (BL reference 15868) 


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Photo credit: J. Amorin on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund, this recording has been digitised and preserved for the nation as part of the British Library's Unlocking our Sound Heritage project. And if you'd like to hear more weird and wonderful wildlife sounds, pay a visit to the Environment and Nature section of British Library Sounds

Follow @CherylTipp and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

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19 September 2018

Seeing sound: What is a spectrogram?

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Greg Green, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage writes:

In this digital age, most of us are familiar with audio waveforms, the ‘wavy’ images that represent the dynamic course of a particular sound recording. Waveforms are in fact a type of graph, with time on the X axis and amplitude (or loudness) on the Y.

Waveform exampleFigure 1: a waveform represents a sound recording by showing amplitude over time

Waveforms are very useful for conveying basic information about a recording e.g. where the loud bits are, where the quiet bits are, and how dynamic the recording is. If you were listening to an interview, a waveform can clearly show you where someone is speaking. Unfortunately, waveforms cannot tell us much about the pitch, frequency, or harmonic content of a recording. For that we can use a different visual representation of sound… say hello to the spectrogram!

How to read a spectrogram

Spectrograms keep time on the X axis but place frequency on the Y axis. Amplitude is also represented as a sort of heat map or scale of colour saturation. Spectrograms were originally produced as black and white diagrams on paper by a device called a sound spectrograph, whereas nowadays they are created by software and can be any range of colours imaginable!

Wave form v spectragramFigure 2: waveform and spectrogram of the same recording. An oscillating low frequency buzz dominates the waveform, only the spectrogram reveals where the bird is calling

Spectrograms map out sound in a similar way to a musical score, only mapping frequency rather than musical notes. Seeing frequency energy distributed over time in this way allows us to clearly distinguish each of the sound elements in a recording, and their harmonic structure. This is especially useful in acoustic studies when analysing sounds such as bird song and musical instruments. So not only do these graphs look really cool, but they can tell us a lot about the sound without even listening.

Spectrogram example (whooper swan)Figure 3: a spectrogram showing the harmonically rich calls of whooper swans

Whooper Swan calls recorded by John Corbett (BL shelfmark WS1734 C5)

In the above example, we can see the calls of a Whooper Swan represented in a spectrogram. The fundamental frequency of the calls is at about 750Hz, which is the frequency with the most energy (usually the lowest frequency of a sound), and gives the sound its perceived pitch. Above that are the harmonics - additional, quieter frequencies that give the sound its ‘colour’ and make up a sort of sonic signature – a Whooper Swan singing a perfect ‘G’ note will have a very different harmonic structure to a piano playing that same note. This information could be used to analyse bird songs and calls in different locations, or to understand the vocabulary of a species.

Creative uses for spectrograms

Clearly spectrograms can tell us a lot about the acoustic elements of a sound, but they are not just used for scientific studies. Audio editing is most often performed with waveforms as it's easier to make cuts or process a selected time range. When editing software uses spectrograms however, it opens up a whole new realm of possibilities! With this spectral editing, we are able to look into the microscopic details of a sound and apply processes to very specific time and frequency ranges. For example, an obtrusive footstep, or car alarm could be identified and removed from a recording, just like ‘photoshopping’ sound!

Spectral repair exampleFigure 4: a recording of a robin singing was ruined by a dog barking and some low end noise – a spectrogram reveals the unwanted noises and allows the recordist to remove them.

Spectral repair BEFORE

Spectral repair AFTER

Musicians can also use spectral editing to compose and generate sounds that could not be made any other way. Patterns and shapes can be ‘drawn’ into spectrograms and played back as frequency content. In some cases, detailed graphic images can be hidden within spectrograms. Aphex Twin used this technique to hide an image of a face within the second track of his ‘Windowlicker’ EP (1999).

Aphex Face

You can find some more examples of images hidden in the spectral content of popular songs here: https://twistedsifter.com/2013/01/hidden-images-embedded-into-songs-spectrographs/

So now you know what spectrograms are, how to read them, and some of their many scientific, creative, and bizarre uses. Keep an eye out for our #SpectrogramSunday @BLSoundHeritage tweets, starting this weekend!

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