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144 posts categorized "Wildlife sounds"

17 June 2019

Recording of the week: Leonardo da Vinci's watery obsession

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

One of the major themes of the library's current exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion is water. From the workings of underwater breathing apparatus to the formation of waves, Leonardo had a lifelong fascination with water and the human desire to both understand it and control it.

'Leonardo da Vinci: A mind in motion' exhibition posterLeonardo da Vinci: A mind in motion exhibition poster featuring a sketch of one of Leonardo’s thought experiments (Arundel MS 263, ff. 44v-59r)

The sound archive has a rich collection of watery recordings, ranging from waterfalls and rivers to rain and snow. Leonardo spent years studying how water interacts with obstacles of all sorts and the same can be said of some sound recordists. Richard Beard was one such recordist. During the course of his life, Richard recorded the sounds of water all over the world, from geysers in Iceland to waves in Australia.

This recording was made much closer to home, on the Isle of Wight, and features the sound of water gently cascading onto the sandy beach of Brook Bay. 

Waterfall at Brook Bay, Isle of Wight,  recorded in 2006 by Richard Beard 

Many more recordings of water can be found in the Weather and Water collections on British Library Sounds. Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion runs until Sunday 8 September 2019.

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

16 May 2019

Mother Carey's Chickens

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Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds writes:

In 19th century coastal folklore, the harsh and unforgiving nature of the sea was often personified by the cruel sea witch Mother Carey.

Carey was said to wreak havoc on the ocean waves, conjuring up devastating storms that would destroy any vessel unlucky enough to be caught in her sights. The ship’s crew would be sent to their deaths so that Carey and her partner, Davy Jones, could feast upon their rotting bodies.

She’s the mother o’ the wrecks, ‘n’ the mother
Of all big winds as blows;
She’s up to some deviltry or other
When it storms, or sleets or snows;
The noise of the wind’s her screamin’
‘I’m arter a plump, young, fine,
Brass-buttoned, beefy-ribbed yound seam’n
So as me ‘n’ my mate kin dine.’

(Extract from John Masefield's poem 'Mother Carey (as told me by the bo'sun)' published in 1902)

Mother Carey didn’t travel the open ocean alone though. Like any villain worth their salt, Carey was accompanied by her very own entourage, which, in this case, happened to be a flock of Storm Petrels (Hydrobates pelagicus). Dubbed Mother Carey's Chickens, these little seabirds were thought to signal the imminent arrival of the dreaded sea witch. 

Mother Carey and her chickens, painted by J. G. Keulemans in 1877Mother Carey and her chickens by J. G. Keulemans, 1877 (Biodiversity Heritage Library via Wikipedia)

As far as accuracy goes, Storm Petrels are a pretty good choice. Not because there's anything sinister about them, but because they're most at home on the open sea and can easily cope with the severest of weather conditions. While many other birds would be caught short in the middle of a tempest, Storm Petrels just take it all in their stride.

What you wouldn’t hear was their voice. For Storm Petrels are generally silent at sea (not a great trait for heralds of doom, but there you go). The complete opposite can be found at their breeding colonies however. Here individuals engage in sustained vocal activity, producing far-carrying purring calls from their burrows. The following extract, taken from a longer recording made by Alan Burbidge on Skokholm Island in 1998, is a great example of this.

Storm Petrel purring calls from burrow (BL ref 145176)

Harbingers of death should, at least in my mind, be loud. Very loud. Terrifying too. But our Storm Petrels are anything but that. Rather selfishly, they save their spine-chilling voices for when they're off duty. So if I was Mother Carey, I'd feel a little short-changed.

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

22 April 2019

Recording of the week: a lesson in bird song duets and trios

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

With hundreds of recordings of birds from around East Africa, Myles E. W. North is a name that constantly crops up within the enormous collection of wildlife species reels here at the library. During his time with the Colonial Administrative Service in Kenya, Myles developed a keen interest in ornithology and, combined with his interest in music, this turned into a passion for recording and studying bird song. He had an excellent ear and was able to transcribe and mimic bird song very accurately. He released two highly praised records: ‘Voices of African Birds’ and ‘More Voices of African Birds’.

In this recording of Tropical Boubous - one of many outtakes from his commercial releases - Myles presents a selection of duets from the birds with announcements in between explaining how the duet works. He accurately whistles the part of each bird, and even uses a recorder (an end blown flute, not his EMI reel-to-reel machine) to demonstrate the lower notes that he cannot whistle.

Photograph of a pair of Tropical Boubous in Hwange National Park, ZimbabweTropical Boubous in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe (Photo credit: Derek Keats on Visual Hunt / CC BY)

Tropical Boubou duets & trios (BL ref WS2882 C3)

This excerpt features what Myles believes is a trio of boubous all adding their own part to the melody and, without his input, you would be forgiven for believing it was all one bird. Myles’ personality really shines through in this recording, demonstrating his knowledge and experience as he breaks down a complicated ensemble of birdsong with some brilliant mimicry.

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

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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.

Vintage illustration of a male Blackbird by Wilhelm von WrightMale 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.”

Illustration of waiting families after the 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.

Illustration of a Curlew, published in 1811Illustration 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)

Photograph of a limpet in a rock pool

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.

Vintage illustration of a European 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.

A spectrogram showing the similar harmonic content between the flight call of the buzzard and the starling’s 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.