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A Sound Lesson

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Submitted by Gavin Haigh on Fri, 15/05/2020 - 22:15

The last few nights' nocmigging efforts have produced little. A handful of Barn Owl shrieks, a couple of Moorhens and that's about it. A bit disappointing if I'm honest; I was hoping for a few waders. Last night's recording was looking similar, until just after midnight when this little smudge appeared...

Sad fact: after lots and lots of nothing, spotting this was mildly thrilling.

I played it. A little screechy, it sounded like a Dunlin. I played it again. Yep, Dunlin. Obviously a bit distant, and therefore not as clear as I would like, but I was happy with calling it a Dunlin.

I've had a few Dunlin now, some nice and clear, some less so, and it's interesting that calls are not all identical. This is to be expected. After all, every Dunlin is not the same. Some are bigger, some smaller, etc, etc, and this individuality is bound to reflect in their voice. Even a single bird will obviously not produce the exact same sound every time it calls. But Dunlin are Dunlin, and they produce a sound with which birders quickly become familiar. So, in order to demonstrate that fact, here is a short video of two calls spliced together...

The first sound is the call in the image above.
The second is a Dunlin recorded overnight on May 3rd/4th.

Clearly they are not identical, but personally I am happy they are sufficiently similar to conclude that both birds are Dunlin.

Anyway, chuffed with my diagnosis I continued to review last night's recording. Well, hello. Just 18 and 23 seconds later were two more calls, much clearer, and then another, again a little faint, at 38 seconds. In other words, four calls from a bird approaching, going over, and away, in the space of 38 seconds. Undoubtedly the same individual bird, but here are the middle two calls...

Er, does that still sound like a Dunlin?

Interesting isn't it? The call still has a similar quality to Dunlin, but is much fuller, and has little accents which a Dunlin doesn't. It took a bit of sleuthing before I realised what it was...

It's a Water Rail. I've had one before (and posted a spectrovid here) but with last night's bird didn't make the connection, because to me it's not as obvious. But as I've said before, when all you have is a noise and a squiggle, it is not always easy to figure out the culprit. And this particular incident illustrates the added handicap of the distant, poorly-defined call. I'm sure that all four calls were fairly similar, but the microphone's ability to resolve the detail of each will obviously depend on how well it 'hears' them. The further away, the harder it is.

Hopefully this post demonstrates two things:

1. Birds are full of surprises. Picture a Water Rail in flight. Can you see it in your mind's eye? Reluctance written all over it. Gangly legs. Silly little wings. The notion of a Water Rail flying over my garden in mid-May, miles from any proper habitat, so pathetically slowly that it can be heard for 38 seconds, makes me smile. Just brilliant.

2. Nocmig makes you think about bird vocalisations in a way that everyday birding simply does not. This cannot be a bad thing.

Actually, three things:

3. I am still useless at this.
Gavin Haig