The hunt for owl sounds and a mystery bird…

Last Friday I once again walked the length of the A4074 overnight, using the surrounding footpaths. This time Mark came with me and he has posted a beautiful account here of the experience from his perspective. He took some amazing photographs (which you can see in his post) – my favourite one being this one, where I was trying to record the sound of traffic along the A4074.

I am sure we freaked out some motorists with our beside-the-road recording tactic + Mark’s camera flash! He also got a beautiful shot of some deer in the same poppy field where I spied a badger last time I walked through the night, but neither of us were quick enough with our cameras to catch the wiley pair of hares that passed us further along the way, near Ipsden. I must admit to feeling quite proud of myself when Mark admitted to me that there is no way on earth that he would have undertaken the night-time walk alone, and that he was mystified by my ability to find the paths in the dark, without a torch.

However while I’d love to think I possess some sort of inherent echo-location ability as Mark suggests, I think that in reality it is working with sounds that gives me a hefty advantage when navigating without light. I have been making and listening to sound recordings made around the A4074 for a long time now, and this method of documenting places is far more complete to me than any other methods I have used in the past for creating a mental map of an area. Images are amazing and as you know, I love to take photographs when I go on adventures. But images cannot contain swathes of time in the same way that sound-recordings can and somehow the moments contained in recordings act as a very effective measure of distance, and as powerful triggers for memory. This means that stretches of the route are remembered for me in durational terms, as well as in terms of texture, events, things heard, and so on. The duration of a recording often roughly reflects the duration I spent in a specific environment, so that if there are 20 minutes or so of relative quiet, I know I was probably tramping for a good distance through a pretty empty field. And the road itself is a constant sonic yardstick, being at times a soft white wash of sound in the distance, and at other times a deafening roar that is obviously close by.

There is a beautiful quote in Joe Moran’s book On Roads, where he writes about how certain roads exist as much ‘in the mind as on the earth,’ and this reminds me of the way that the imagination fleshes out and retains impressions of places. For me, this process is one increasingly informed by sounds and the pathways around the A4074 are places I recall more and more according to what I heard along them. My imagined sense of the A4074 is fragmented, audible and internal, somehow more physical than pictures, and full of time and bodily sensations. I love adding to this map with the ongoing Around the A4074 radio project.

For instance I was very excited on Friday as we slipped into the fields behind Marsh Baldon and began heading towards the exact spot on the path where I had stood and held my breath in awe on June 21st, listening to a Barn Owl hissing and calling in a tree above my head. We did not hear the same owl this second time around but earlier in our walk together, Mark and I had heard a barn owl (and a rave!) down by Sandford Lock, just off the Thames path. These places are now marked out in my mind as ‘owl places,’ and a sense of the texture and atmosphere of them is marked out in a very detailed way when I listen to the recordings I made on each occasion.

The Rave Owl recording contains the memory of how eerie it was to have electronic beats drifting across the damp, hot field toward us as we lingered at the margins of a woodland, listening to a barn owl screeching in the trees beyond. And the Marsh Baldon recording recalls the tense feeling I became aware of in my body as I stood on the path at the edge of a field of oilseed rape a couple of weeks ago, trying to locate the source of that otherworldly hissing sound. Both recordings bring to my mind a prickling sense I now associate with being extremely alert, and a sense of me holding my breath.

Somehow the velvet darkness morphs things so that they become less distinct, which is where the particularities of sound become so useful and so specific in their descriptive powers. I think of the route as a sequence of places, which is echoed in the sequence of my recordings and all the different terrains and shapes they describe. I know for instance that when you leave Sandford Lock, the paddocks beyond that lead ultimately up to Nuneham Courtenay are full of thistles and nettles. The specific scrunch of thistles underfoot is a very distinctive sound; those corrugated, barbed edges fold underfoot like sharpened tinsel.

And I know that there is a stile leading out of those paddocks with a plank that is split clean down the middle, which wobbles disconcertingly, and which makes a worryingly rotten sound. I can’t describe exactly how rotten wood sounds, but it lacks the confident resonance of a healthy plank of wood, and in this case is concealed within a dank tunnel of trees where clouds of greenfly buzz vaguely around your face. In enclosed, forested-over areas the soundscape becomes eerily muffled, punctuated only by the quite scary sound of snapping twigs and frightened beasties rustling in the undergrowth; I have a sense of where all such places lay along my now familiar route, because this sonic atmopshere is so specific. I also know that after the rotten stile there is a field which is planted with some sort of legume, because larks like to nest there (as they seemingly do in all the pea-type fields between Oxford and Reading) and at night-time, the foliage bubbles with their melifluous songs. Beyond this, the field that leads up to the A4074 itself is planted with wheat and the farmer has created a path using some sort of weedkiller. The resultant carpet of parched, brittle, chemically-burnt stems along the public right of way scrunches underfoot with an unmistakeably straw-like quality. My breathing in recordings made here evidences the slight hill, and the crescendoing white noise of traffic makes it easy to locate one’s increasing proximity to the road itself. I could go on, explaining to you how each section of the walk is indelibly tattooed on my mind by the sounds that I associate with walking through it, but I think by now you probably get the idea.

To my mind the sequence reads somewhat like a musical score; here there is a refrain, there, a crescendo. For this section, we will hear this kind of bird, and for this other section, we will hear the sound of the road. And so I feel like a walker who is learning the landscape, and also like a listener, who is learning the score of this place and the sounds which unfurl as it is played.

It is really suprising how predictable many aspects of the night-time score are. I expect, now, to hear the sound of owls around dusk, as the night first darkens the sky. But other sounds are even more specific in their predictability. For instance on Friday, near Wallingford on the bank of the Thames, I recalled to Mark that last time I had undertaken this journey, I had heard the strange and beautiful calls of an unknown bird around this spot. Almost on cue, just as I had I finished describing the sound to him, it began to roll out from amidst some reeds near to us! I have posted both recordings here – the one I made on the binaural microphones a couple of weeks ago, and the one from Friday (which was recorded on a different set up) – so that you can decide whether, like me, you think these are the calls of the same bird, from around the same time, from around the same place.

Crickets and blackbirds also begin their sounds at specific times according to the position of the sun, and the traffic even has a roughly predictable rhythm, the roads getting busier first thing in the morning and dwindling to the occasional lonely moan of a single engine deep into the night. There are also chance encounters – like the deer or the badger or the hares in the field of poppies – that seem less predictable. But one thing is certain; the sun always sets and the sun always rises, and everything that happens in between seems strange and magical to our diurnal senses.

I have now become obsessed with the owl sounds and the identity of the strange, riverside bird which so thrilled us at 3am around Wallingford. I am hoping Chris Watson will be able to give me some tips on how best to capture both sounds when I attend his workshop at Kew Gardens next Monday, and that someone who reads this will be able to tell me what the bird is that I heard beside the Thames.

5 Responses to The hunt for owl sounds and a mystery bird…

  1. Felix says:

    ETA: I think the mystery bird could be a reed warbler…

  2. tinebeest says:

    Wow Felix, I don’t know what to write in reponse to this post. So rich and detailed, I can almost *taste* the sounds of that overnight walk on the tip of my tongue if that makes any sense. Thanks for posting, is all I can say right now!

  3. Mark says:

    Beautiful post gorgeous lady, thanks for putting the sounds up on my blog too. I love the difference in how we recall the walk – me so blind and you so hearing. I learn loads from the way you think about this stuff. Weirdo 🙂 xxx

  4. colleen says:

    This is wondrous, an invitation to sense the landscape in a completely different way. I very much hope that your sonic walk is as lovely as this. Wish I could join you.

    PS John thought at first it might be a wren, but if it was beside the river then a reed warbler is very likely, isn’t it?

  5. Alun Ward says:

    Beautiful – thanks for this. You mention owls – you can’t do better for a primer on owl sounds than visit David Hughes who runs Hawk Walks. He’s got a tawny owl, barn owl and Eagle owl so you can learn about their sound world. Highly recommended – I’ll put up the ones I recorded at his place one day soon, I promise!
    Just came across a quote about the two biggest fears of humankind being unknown sounds and heights. Your night walk reminded me of this!

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