The Listening to Birds Blog

Song Thrush by Nigel Pye //

July 30, 2009

The Waterfall Trail

Filed under: Uncategorized — Andrew Whitehouse @ 10:12 pm

Last year I spent two wonderful months at the Reserva Ecológica de Guapiaçu in southeast Brazil.  While I was there I was able to make numerous recordings of birds and from these recordings I’ve put together a sound-guide to one of the most popular trails on the reserve: the Waterfall Trail.  Here are the recordings together with my commentary.  Each track covers a section of the trail and includes birds that one might hear along each.


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Track 2: Casa Pesquisa 0-350m

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Track 3: The lower forest 350-850m

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Track 4: The bamboo 850-1000m

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Track 5: The clearing 1000-1250m

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Track 6: The ascent 1250-1750m

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Track 7: The gulleys 1750-2350m

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Track 8: The waterfall 2350-2500m

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If you’ve any comments I’d be very interested to hear them, particularly if you’re a Regua visitor and have an opportunity to walk the trail. Did you find that listening to the sound guide helped you to listen to the birds along the trail and to recognise what you were hearing?

May 11, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — Andrew Whitehouse @ 3:47 pm

Here in Aberdeen you’re never far away from a gull and its evocative call.  Here are some thoughts about ‘seagulls’ of one sort or another.

From Sharron in Fife:

Seagulls can be a pain but I love it when there’s a fight between a gull and a crow. I’ve managed to catch this on camera a few times, always first alerted by the racket.

Rebecca Sargent comments:

I love to hear the birds, although the herring gulls (of which there are plenty of in Hastings) can be a bit tiresome sometimes!

Cate Butler writes:

Herring gulls always used to put me in mind of Cornish sea villages but now I live in Bath/Bristol they are very commonplace.

From Bob Woldie in Woking:

I have visited the coast countless times since I was a small boy (I’m 45 now) and, unlike some people, I enjoy the sound of sea gulls. Oddly though, whenever I hear a sea gull I am first reminded of the only occasion when I did not enjoy the sound. That happened about 25 years ago when I was kept awake all night by the incessant cries of the gulls around Looe in Cornwall.

Peter Soar from Cambridge writes:

Earlier this year I went deaf, so birdsong is a memory. First memory – as a boy of 5 or 6 arriving on holiday at Sidmouth, Devon where we spent most of our summer holidays. The sound of the gulls was the first sound of the holiday, after that of the steam engine which hauled our train. Very evocative; I suppose you count gulls’ cries as birdsong.

From David Macefield in Thames Ditton:

The cry of a herring gull also takes me to the seaside. Why is that they never seem to make much sound when inland?

Jack Matthias from Nainamo, British Columbia writes:

The sound of glaucous-winged seagulls resident on the west coast of Canada (in British Columbia) is a sound I grew up with near the shore in Vancouver. Hearing it now brings a peace to my soul, knowing I have finally returned to this part of the world. The sound was particularly associated with travel on the British Columbia ferries in earlier days when garbage was dumped overboard. The gulls, being scavengers, would set up a great hue and cry as they fought over the spoils.

A writer from Exeter comments:

I love the sound of herring gulls. I grew up in a seaside town on the south Devon coast so was used to the sound of hundreds of noisy squawking herring gulls, especially during the summer months when they are nesting and scavenging for food. I moved up north for a good few years far away from the coast and used to get terribly homesick. During my trips back to my home town to visit family, the sound of the herring gulls always struck me and filled me with joy because I new I was back home!

From a writer in Glasgow:

I suspect lots of people may, like me, smell a phantom whiff of seaweed and a memory of a childhood holiday when they hear a gull cry, even if they’re in the heart of the city miles from the shore.

From George McCissock in North Queensferry:

I used to associate the herring gull’s cry with summer holidays, as we always went to the coast for our holidays, and this was before the time that gulls started to forage far inland for food. I remember the glorious feeling of waking to seagulls and realising I really was on holiday, and then my parents grumbling over breakfast about how early the gulls had woken them!

From Lynda Read:

Memories from my childhood of annual holidays in Devon and Cornwall, they seemed so audacious and big. I used to get scared when my mother used to hold up sandwich crusts to the swirling mewing gulls when they used to swoop in and snatch from her outstretched arm. For the last 27 years living in Sandwich, seagulls are now different creatures. They are an intermittent part of the day. Annoying me by waking me up by bickering as they fly down the road just above roof height on their way to the landfill site outside Sandwich at Richborough for breakfast. In nearby towns such as Dover, Deal, Margate etc. gulls are pests and rip open bin bags left out for collection and strew rubbish everywhere and can be very aggressive during nesting time. So they are no longer the romantic, nostalgic reminders of lovely childhood holidays. Occasionally, only occasionally a gull will call and I am taken back to Porthcurno or St Ives.

From Dee Coulson in Ellon:

Bird sounds and songs have been part of my life since a small child. I remember arriving at my Grandma’s seaside Devon town on the train, with the sound of the seagulls mixed with steam trains hissing across the platform on arrival. We had arrived to the sound of the seagulls, smell of steam trains and sea air which I had impatiently anticipated since leaving our home in the suburbs. This is my earliest recollection of how interwoven bird sound can be with experience, emotion and memory. Today when I hear the sound of gulls I still remember the whole experience of being at my Grandmother’s house for summer holidays.

Daniel Eames from Northampton writes:

As a child from Northampton we only used to visit the coast once a year and even though Gulls can often be aggressive pests, they still remind me of fond childhood memories.

And from Gordon Smith in Aberdeen:

A Common Gull, just this moment, cried outside my room window. My instant response to that is clear pictures of massed trawlers at Point Law (Pint La) where I spent school holidays, 1948 to 1952, with my grandfather and uncle who were ships riggers at HE Stroud Trawel Owners, Market Street. Also pictured is the fish market with hundreds of huge halibut and thousands of boxes of fish, and scavenging gulls, in their hundreds if not thousands.

April 15, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — Andrew Whitehouse @ 12:54 pm

Blackbirds are singing a lot in Britain now, and they seem to sound especially good on a warm, still evening. Caroline Brown from Bedford writes:

When I was in my first year of university I lived in student halls next to a building site. The builders worked from 8 o’clock in the morning until 5 in the evening, and for the majority of that time all I could hear in my room was machinery. But in the middle of the night when I was lying in bed I used to leave my window open to listen to the sound of the blackbirds singing. It seemed like they were as joyful as me to appreciate the all-too-brief peace, and reminded me of childhood summers spent playing cricket until it was too dark to see the ball. I can honestly say that few sounds will ever make me feel so utterly content.

From a respondent in London:

I am lucky enough to live overlooking Bunhill Fields in The City of London. William Blake, Daniel Defoe and John Bunyan were buried there. A virtuoso blackbird – Murphy – inhabits Bunhill Fields and has entertained my family and neighbours for several years. He and Mrs Murphy are imprinted on our block of flats, usually trying to nest in one or other of the balconies, on top of a security camera, and last year on a pipe in our basement garage. Murphy’s singing is so gloriously over the top that you sometimes have to laugh from the sheer exuberance of it. Also, Murphy’s territory includes a primary school, and I think he may have picked up some intonations from the children. Murphy is a “shared value” linking a pretty sophisticated but loose-knit group of people together.

From Elizabeth Soulie:

In May 1999, my sister and I were at my mother’s bedside in Somerset. She was dying, peacefully, after many frustrating years of immobilisation following a series of strokes. During the week before her death, we were sharing a bedroom in a nearby bed and breakfast. She died one morning at 4am when we were sleeping. At the same time, we were woken by the clear, loud, full-throated song of a blackbird, even though it was still dark. We both wondered why it was singing in the night and listened to it for some time.

When we were informed of my mother’s death a little later that morning, I immediately thought that it was as if she had come to sing her great happiness at being free from her handicap at last and it was a very comforting thought. Since then the dawn or dusk song of the blackbird has always brought back memories of my mother. It is the most musical and soul-lifting sound.

A belated update

Filed under: Uncategorized — Andrew Whitehouse @ 10:23 am

The blog has been very quiet for a long time now, but this is more a reflection of how much has been happening with the project than how little. After a terrific time at REGUA in southeast Brazil, I was fortunate enough to visit New Zealand for the Association of Social Anthropologists’ conference in December. I’d received quite a lot of interesting contributions to the project from New Zealand, so it was great to be able to listen to birds there myself. The fascinating, and sometimes tragic, thing about New Zealand is how the birdlife closely reflects the country’s human history, both in terms of what you hear and what you don’t hear. Last week I headed to this year’s ASA conference in Bristol, where I gave a paper about interactions between people and birds through sound and convened a wonderful panel on imitation together with my colleague Petra Kalshoven.

In a bid to keep the blog going, I thought I would regularly post some of the many hundreds of contributions to the project that I’ve been sent. I don’t intend to comment too much on these but instead hope that they speak for themselves. Contributions to the project are still very much welcomed.

May 7, 2008

Screaming summer

Filed under: Interpretations,Uncategorized — Tags: , — Andrew Whitehouse @ 4:44 pm

Swifts are back, at least here in Aberdeen. They arrived, rather suddenly as they often do, on Monday and have been gathering and swirling above the city roof tops ever since. If I’m pushed I usually claim that swifts are my favourite birds, although dippers have a strong case too. Part of the reason why I think they’re so wonderful is that incredible screeching noise they make, a sound that seems so redolent of warm summer days. The arrival of swifts is perhaps the bird arrival that I look forward to the most, and come late summer I shall be keenly looking to see how long they stay on for.

Many people wrote to me about swifts and their associations. Andrew from Crowborough said:

I’ve listened to different birds since I was a child. The one I always listen out for is swifts. They don’t make a nice sound but I always associate their arrival with the beginning of summer.

Judith from Huntingdon adds:

Whenever I hear the sound of swifts screaming above during the summer, I am transported back to the garden of the house in which I was brought up in Southport, Lancashire

Melissa from London shares my enthusiasm:

The bird song I love the best is the scream of the swift, because of its associations with summer. I always watch out for them, and this year I heard them before I saw them, on my way in to work one day. It was a heart-lifting moment. In central London you do see them flying overhead, but usually very far up and not very audible. I love going away in summer, to Devon or the Lake District, somewhere where they scream and dive almost around your head. They stay such a short time, the beeping cries of the house martins lingering a bit longer.

And Philip from Preston has similar feelings:

The screaming of parties of swifts swooping down between the house tops is perhaps my favourite bird sound (it’s hardly a song!). Coupled with the spectacle of their flight, it is so exciting it makes me want to yelp with joy! And of course it tells us that spring will soon be summer or indeed that summer is already here (but not for long – the swifts stay for such a short time). May they always return – the thought of summer without them is unbearable.

I think this last quote suggests one of the reasons why swifts are so strongly associated with summer. Their presence so closely coincides with that season, arriving in early May and leaving in early to mid August. Like a typically British summer they’re brief and ephemeral but, with their needle-winged flight and screaming cries, full of effervescent life.

March 22, 2008

An exhaltation of larks

Filed under: Uncategorized — Andrew Whitehouse @ 12:34 pm

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to spend some time in the beautiful and bird-rich northeast of Spain. There were plenty of birds singing in the various habitats I visited, and I had an interesting time trying to recognise the various sounds. Some of these were familiar from home, others were sounds I’ve heard on previous visits to continental Europe but which I don’t hear regularly. I was interested to discover which of these I could remember. Some were very obvious, such as the simple and insistent ‘sip-sip-sip’ of a zitting cisticola (or fan-tailed warbler, if you prefer). There were other sounds that were a bit harder to recall but which I recognised once I heard them, like the harsh ratchet-like call of a Sardinian warbler and the distinctive buzzy twittering of a serin, a sound that seems so redolent of warm sunny gardens in southern Europe.

But the finest spectacle of sound was in the drylands at El Planeron, just to the east of Zaragoza. Early morning here was cool with a lingering mist and the air was filled with singing larks, particularly the numerous lesser short-toed larks, together with thekla and calandra larks. Whenever I’m in open country like this, it strikes me that the way that birds sing is different to how they sing in more enclosed habitats such as woodland. Here the birds don’t find a discrete perch to sing from but instead they take to the air and their singing is a continuous stream of sound and not the well-mannered bursts and pauses of woodland birds. Here’s part of a recording I made at El Planeron.

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Interspersed amongst the relentless twittering of lesser short-toed larks is a rather different sound: a rising three-note song where the last note is strangely inflected. This is the song of the avian speciality of El Planeron, a Dupont’s lark. This is one of those birds that is perhaps most readily encountered as a sound. They sing much more from the ground than other larks and they are, as anyone who has ever tried to look for them will tell you, bewilderingly hard to catch sight of. You can hear one rather more clearly on this recording.

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Eventually I saw one rise up from the ground like the other larks and give a circling song flight high up above me. But when I think of a Dupont’s lark, what I think of is that strange three-note phrase that I heard almost continuously at El Planeron, emerging from what seemed like the landscape itself.

January 14, 2008

The sound of spring

Filed under: Perception,Uncategorized — Tags: , — Andrew Whitehouse @ 3:49 pm

First of all, a happy New Year to all readers. It should be a very busy 2008 on the Listening to Birds project.

We’re still enveloped in the depths of winter here in the northeast of Scotland but the days are beginning to draw out and the first signs, and sounds, of spring are in the air. Over Christmastime I was down in the rather mild English Midlands and the relatively warm weather was encouraging a few birds to sing. During the autumn and early winter the only birds I’d heard singing here in Aberdeen were robins and wrens but down south goldcrests, mistle thrushes and dunnocks were also tempted into song.

But it’s not just the sound of birds singing that marks the coming of spring. Once or twice, even in the grip of some fierce winter storms, I’ve heard the brief burst of an oystercatcher over town. We see them along the coast here all winter, but as spring gets closer they start prospecting nest sites further inland and can be heard overhead, often at night-time. And for some time now the herring gulls that nest on the rooves below my flat have been returning to their nest sites periodically and calling to one another with that familiar seaside cry. I look forward to being regularly awoken as the days lengthen. Here’s one I recorded last week, with the thrum of Aberdeen harbour in the background.

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Some birds just seem to sound summery whatever the season. Here’s a flock of goldfinches I recored twittering above the traffic in Torry in December.

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The lightness of their call somehow seems to evoke a feeling of sunny days and flower-filled meadows, even when the surroundings are anything but.

Hearing these sounds appear as the birds’ lives journey through their annual cycle is to me less about phenology, the scientific study of these first appearances, and more about the feeling those sounds give of life progressing, both for birds and for humans.

If you’d like to tell me about your own sounds of spring then you can post your experience through the contribute section of the website.

December 10, 2007

A Patriotic Bullfinch?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Andrew Whitehouse @ 5:51 pm

I’ve just read a piece on the BBC News website about the reinstatement of a grave to commemorate a Bullfinch that could sing the national anthem. The story reminds me that it was quite common for Bullfinches to be trained to sing tunes, and song books and special pipes called ‘bird flageolets’ were even produced with this purpose in mind. Bullfinches are not particularly noted for their singing, which is very quiet and unobtrusive, but they’re very good at learning songs, something that was appreciated by 18th and 19th century bird keepers. In Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey’s wonderful book Birds Britannica they quote a letter that Lord Chesterfield sent to his son in 1740:

Bullfinches, you must know, have no natural note of their own, and never sing, unless taught; but will learn tunes better than any other birds. This they do by attention and memory; and you may observe, that, while they are taught, they listen with great care, and never jump about and kick their heels (Cocker & Mabey 2005: 456)

This view that only man could provide Bullfinches with their song is echoed in Lady Lawton’s poem to her beloved Bullie:

God gave thee thine beauty, man gave thee thy song.
Such perfection combined do few bullies belong.

But Bullfinches do have a song, and it’s actually rather complex and varies a great deal between individuals. The father of modern avian bioacoustics W.H. Thorpe (1961: 87) argued that Bullfinches are so skilled at learning different songs because individual variation is critical to the function of singing in Bullfinches. Bullfinches pair for life and their singing, Thorpe argued, is more concerned with pair bonding and coordinating the timing of breeding than with territoriality. It follows from this that greater flexibility in song facilitates individual recognition, which is useful for pair bonding but less useful for intra-specific territoriality. One presumes then that Lady Lawton’s Bullfinch sang ‘God save the Queen’ as a result of its training rather than patriotic fervour.

Cocker, M. & Mabey, R. 2005 Birds Britannica London: Chatto & Windus
Thorpe, W.H. 1961 Bird-song; the biology of vocal communication and expression in birds Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

December 5, 2007

Madagascan bird recordings from the British Library

Filed under: Uncategorized — Andrew Whitehouse @ 3:23 pm

The British Library has released a CD of Madagascan bird sounds. You can hear some of these beautiful and startling recordings on the BBC website and at the British Library page. It’s perhaps not surprising that these birds sound so different to anything else when many belong to families unique to the island.

The University of Aberdeen