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Field recording trip to the Black River in Sweden
May 26, 2017 - George Vlad
Field recording trip to the Black River in Sweden
May 26, 2017 - George Vlad
A few days ago I returned from a very productive trip to a place called the Black River in central Sweden. The trip was organized by Stefan Taylor and Kari Knight with the help of fellow sound recordist Richard Youell. We were also joined by Stijn Demeuleneare, sound artist based in Belgium and Tony Fulford, Ornithologist from the UK. Pete Smith had been to the place in April and only had good things to say about it, so I didn't think twice before booking my place.
The first reason I decided to go on this trip is the variety of habitats within reach. We were able to record in wetland, woodland patches, relatively dense forest and the many lakes that dotted the area. There was occasional road and air traffic, but never as pervasive as what I'm used to in the UK. Also, since Stefan knew the place very well he was able to take us to excellent places where we could leave out gear overnight.
Having learnt my lesson on my recent trip to Romania (which I will write about at some point), I packed for hot, cold, dry and wet weather, regardless of what the forecast said. Fortunately it only rained twice and for very short periods of time. We were extremely lucky in this regard as we were able to record through all 4 nights that we stayed there, and also during most of the days. Wind was a problem for recording soft ambience on only one occasion, which is more than I could have hoped for.
As soon as we got to the cabin we headed out for a short recce. The Black River and adjacent bog was 5 minutes away on foot so this was our first introduction to the place. I was happy to hear species such as Bittern, Snipe, Lapwing and Spotted Crake calling.
Over the next days we discovered a patch of forest 15 minutes away from the cabin, a few lakes, several deeper forests, nice places where Capercaillie and Black Grouse would lek, and a few trees by the road where Thrush Nightingales would sing their heart out. Most importantly however is that all these places were reachable by car in less than half an hour.
On the one occasion when wind speed was fairly high (10 mph or so, 7 being where I usually stop recording) we went out to explore the surroundings and take photos. Stefan was able to call a variety of birds including Pygmy Owls, Cuckoos and Crested Tits by doing his impression of various bird calls. The highlight of that day was seeing and photographing a majestic Great Grey Owl who was out to catch dinner.
As already mentioned we managed to do overnight recordings on all 4 nights that we were there. I came home with around 200 GB of recordings that I still need to listen back to. At times I felt that one main rig and one handheld recorder were not enough for all the excellent places that were within reach.
Deciding where to leave my rig was often difficult, but in the end I focused on my targets for the trip. These were mainly Woodland and Wetland recordings, since I'm currently working on a couple of Surround Sound libraries dealing with this sort of habitats.
One species that we were thrilled to have recorded is the Black Throated Diver (or Loon as it is known in the US). These birds are really shy and mainly call at night when there is no disturbance. We left the rigs out overnight in a place that had excellent acoustics and hoped for the best. There was just a bit of breeze, and the Divers called once around 11pm just after we left.
On top of all the awesome recording, photography and hiking, I also enjoyed lengthy conversations on equipment, technique, Ornithology, Sound Art etc. The mix of backgrounds and interests was excellent and made the trip even more enjoyable. The last thing I should mention is that I recorded a Lynx meowing at night in a forest. It might just be a feral cat, but I'll go with Lynx until proven wrong.
For the accompanying audio clips and images, visit the original write-up on Vlad's blog.
May 11, 2017 - Pete Smith
I recently got back from a great field recording trip to the Black River Valley in central Sweden. The trip was organised by Stefan Taylor, Kari Knight and Richard Youell and looked like a great chance to go recording somewhere I have never been before, so I decided to give it a go. Stefan is a naturalist who has owned a small cabin in the area since 2009. He knows the area well and has been scoping out the best spots for recording particular species for the last 10 years. He is the first port of call for finding out where and when to go to get good recordings. Richard is a fellow sound recordist and landscape photographer and Kari is a Yoga instructor and journalist who helped with the cooking and organisation of the trip. Also on the trip with us was Anthony Mcgeehan, a wildlife photographer and writer from Ireland. Click here to see some of Anthony's pictures.
I had a very busy period of work during April shooting films up in the highlands and over in Sardinia so I thought this would be a good chance to get a break (even if I would still be sound recording!). I also thought it would be a great chance to hear a capercaillie lek as numbers in Sweden are much higher than in Scotland and Stefan had found some spots where he had heard them lekking.
Flights from London Stansted to Vasteras airport only take around 2 hours and then its just a 40 min car journey to where we were staying. This part of Sweden is very flat with lots of hay fields and large pine forests with small patches of birch clumped together at the edges of the fields and lots of small lakes dotted throughout the landscape. There are lots of small huts which are all painted a lovely kidney bean red. Some of the houses we passed looked a bit like they are from a horror movie or some kind of scandi noir like the killing... but most are just lovely old fashioned summer houses often built round the edges of the lakes.
The thing that strikes you, when you first arrive, is the lack of people and the huge number of forestry tracks. Without Stefan as our guide we would have got lost pretty quickly! The forest was largely pine and the land very flat, a big difference from the hills and hard wood forests of Scotland where I usually record. I initially found it pretty bleak, but this feeling faded quickly as soon as I got out into the forest and discovered quite how much wildlife there was on offer.
After arriving I decided not to waste any time and to head straight out to the caper lek. Stefan had already setup a hide and had spent the last few nights trying to discover where they were tending to lek. Capercaillie leks are famously unpredictable. They are not like black grouse, which tend to lek in exactly the same position each year. The area of the lek tends to be over at least four square miles of pine forest and they will often move to a slightly different place to call and display each morning.
The hide Stefan had setup was very luxurious compared to a lots of hides I had slept in in the past. It was a hunting hide with handy viewing windows and enough space for me to lie down if I angled myself from corner to corner.
As it had been very cold recently in Sweden, Stefan had packed it with bedding and gave me his heavy winter sleeping bag to sleep in, so I never felt the cold. To avoid disturbance I entered the hide around 6pm and stayed till I could no longer hear any caper activity. This usually happened around 9 or 10am. So it was a long stint in the hide! Kari made me up some lovely sandwiches and a flask of tea and I popped into the shop and got myself some amusingly named Swedish chocolate.
Within the first hour I heard snipe 'drumming', black grouse, woodcock, roe deer calls, black birds, mistle thrush, song thrush, ravens, chaffinch, great tits and whooper swans in the distance. I first heard capers at around 8pm. At night they tend to arrive at dusk to roost and make an almighty crash as they land high in the trees. They then have a look about to see if its safe and sometimes come down out of the trees to display or just call from the trees. However, the majority of activity tends to happen in the morning from the first light onwards. The calls sound to me like an entire farm yard of animals in one bird: there are pig-like grunts and squeals, clicks and pops that sound like the clip-clop of horse's hooves (For this reason they are often know as 'horse of the woods') and a variety of other weird and wonderful sounds. How much activity there is depends very much on the weather so if the wind is high or there is a lot of rain they will tend not to call very much if at all.
It's quite exciting to hear them arrive and strangely that night they did a lot of calling from around 8pm till about 9.30 and then not very much in the morning. Sadly the calls were coming from too far away for me to get a decent recording. Richard however got a great recording. He had left his mics around 300m from where I was, slightly further up the hill. Richard tends to use a dummy head and record in binaural so best listened to on headphones. He was using EM172 electret mics and recording into LS-11. As Richard explained, these mics are plugin power rather than phantom power which makes them very good for leaving our over night unattended as they don't use up batteries very quickly. They are also only £68 for a stereo pair and have a similar noise floor to DPA 4060s. Here is the website that sells them click here
The next day we took a trip to Farmansbo reserve. It is a lovely old woodland with huge pine trees and amazing lichen and moss formations. Half way through the walk we heard a goshhawk calling. We then discovered there was a nest directly above us and saw a male fly away. The first time I've seen a goshhawk in the wild!
That night I decided to try and record black throated diver at a local lake. I set up my mics on the far side of the lake and sat listing as the sun went down. I heard a black woodpecker off to my left as I arrived . They drum at an amazing volume and sound a bit like a machine gun. A lot louder than the great spotted woodpeckers I'm used to hearing back in Scotland. I could see the black throated divers were on the lake through my binoculars but there were a few Canada geese on the lake that I think someone had been feeding. They kept coming over towards my mics calling a making a right racket; quite annoying!
Then eventually the black throated divers called. Once right in front of my mics and then again slightly off to the right. I love the sound with the echo from the forest around the lake. As the sun went down woodcock started roding in the forest behind me and I heard snipe drumming off to my left and the bubbling calls of black grouse off in the distance . A lovely mix of different sounds!
On the final night I had one last go in the hide at the caper lek. I heard them crashing into the trees at around 8.40pm and then a few grunts but not much activity in the night. Then the next morning they started calling at around 3.30am. The sound continued right through till around 9.30am. Again, sadly it was slightly too far from my mics to get a good recording but that gives me a reason to come back!
The trip overall was amazing. Such a lovely unspoiled part of the world. I came away with lots of lovely ambience recordings (some of which I've already used in film projects) and some great individual species recordings which will definitely get used in the next wildlife film I work on or even in dramas to slot in around dialogue. This area of Sweden is so full of wildlife and really is a sound recordists dream come true. I'll definitely be back!
Massive thanks to Stefan Taylor for organising everything, Kari for all the wonderful food, Richard Youell for all the sound recording tips and Anthony for his amazing bird knowledge and ability to to mimic any birdsong on command!
Stefan runs trips in April and May so to book yourself on one of next year's trip email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
For the accompanying audio clips and images, visit the original write-up on Pete's blog.
An introduction to Wildlife Sound Recording
2018 - Anthony McGeehan
I was tempted to visit Sweden’s Black Valley after I checked out Stefan’s description of the place and its potential for birds and other wildlife. I’m not a knowledgeable bird sound recordist so I decided to book a tour to learn more about sound recording and to maximise the recording opportunities. I rolled sixes in both aspirations! Over the course of five days I received great help from Stefan and other tour participants. The camaraderie was superb and the experience was like being in a Big Brother household where everyone got on and nobody was evicted. Outdoors, the scenery and unspoilt natural sounds were a delight; indoors, the cosy cabin and homemade food was well worth washing dishes for! The birds were marvellous and, being keen to see and photograph as much as possible, I never had a dull moment. Among the owls, Tengmalm’s and Pygmy were unforgettable. Capercaillies presented themselves several times. Stefan found a Goshawk nest and the king of hawks gave great views. Black-throated Divers, Cranes, Black Grouse and adorable Long-eared Owls were all easy to see – even from the accommodation. The feeling of being ‘far from the madding crowd’ was bliss. The holiday was a hoot from start to finish – birds, scenery, great shared knowledge, no effort spared and a cook that was better at finding Capercaillies than the leader! And, yes, I got lovely sound recordings too.
Take a look at some of Anthony's photographs.
Sweden Trip - part 2
May 05, 2018 - Pete Smith
So it's time for round two! After having such a great time last year visiting the Black River Valley in central Sweden I decided to go again this year. As I mentioned in my blog post from last year, the trip is organised by Stefan Taylor with help from Kari Knight and is aimed at sound recordists or just people with an appreciation of nature. The area has been designated a European Natura 2000 site outstanding for its nature and wildlife and is a wonderful place to record. What I loved so much last time about the area was the amazing moss and lichen covered pine forests and beautiful lakes and of course the quiet!
This time my goals were to get a good recording of the Capercaillie lek and to get a whole host of different surround sound ambiences. To say I was excited about returning to Sweden would be an understatement. I have had a long run of work shooting various corporate videos and working from my studio, so I was really looking forward to some time in the forest away from it all.
I also recently decided to upgrade my mkh 40/mkh 30 mid-side stereo rig to a double mid side rig with two matched mkh 8040s. This was partly because I have been doing more and more work involving surround so this felt like the next logical step. I chose this setup mainly for its portability, small size and flexibility. Double mid side recording can be decoded to a variety of different formats from mono to 5.1. I am also friends with the recordist George Vlad https://mindful-audio.com/ who uses this rig regularly and is happy with it. I often find the best way to find out if a piece of kit is going to suit your needs is to talk to someone who uses it regularly. I tend not to trust online reviews anymore as you can never tell if the person has been sponsored by the the company who make the piece of kit.
I have to say I actually prefer the sound of the Schoeps DMS rigs but the cost, and stories of problems with moisture put me off as a lot of the recording I do is in Scotland where days without rain are a lot less common than days with rain. I also often record in countries that have very high humidity and didn't want to risk this effecting my recordings.
I decided to buy a Cinela pianissimo to house all three mics. Matt and Nathan at Wendy's broadcast made me up cables with helpful colour coding so it is clear which channel is which. All my initial tests seemed to go very well so now it was time to try it out in the wilderness. The weather looked like it was going to be quite mixed so it seemed as if I would be putting the Cinela through its paces. The rig is shown below. Its a thing of beauty and I was amazed at how good it was at dealing with the wind. Even with the fluffy wind jammer off!
After arriving I headed straight out into the forest. There was a lovely evening chorus going on with lots of distant song thrush singing with a few woodcock passing every now and then. Sunday I heard some heavy breathing and a loud squealing sound and two wild boar marched into the clearing I was in. I smelled them before I saw them! They viewed me cautiously for a few minutes and then ran off back into the forest with a loud grunt. I was still pretty tired from my journey so I headed back to the house for a dinner of Swedish meatballs prepared by Kari and a glass of wine. This was a good chance to meet the other people on the trip with me. There was Daan Hendricks, a sound designer and sound library creator, Stijn Demeulenaere, a sound artist, Tony Fulford, a fellow member of WSRS and bird expert, Juan Monge a sound editor from Spain, Stefan Pigeon who used to work for Roland and now runs the website www.mynoise.net and Michael Garner a sound recordist who is also a member of WSRS and Ben Chinn who is a ecology student doing work experience with Stefan. It was a great chance to talk to like minded people about the intricacies of recording wildlife.
The next evening at around 5pm I headed for the caper hide. I setup my mics in a spot near where a caper has been seen lekking the previous morning and ran cables back to the hide. I disguised the mics with some scrim and covered the cables with some leaves and Moss being careful that nothing was knocking against the mics. The capers at this lek site can sometimes be active from around 7.30pm till 9.30pm and then from around 4am till 12pm which meant there was a chance I could be in the hide for around 16.5 hours. So I prepared myself for a long stay. Below is the hide I was in and the mics.
Right on cue at around 7.30 a caper landed in a tall tree above my mics with an almighty crash. They seem to deliberately make as much noise as possible when they arrive to roost to show of their size and strength to females and potential rivals. This caper called and flapped his wings repeatedly for eventually settling down to roost at around 9am creating a lovely black silhouette against the light blue night sky. Woodcock passed by and I could hear snipe drumming late into the night.
I fell asleep around 11pm and then woke again at 3.30am. I checked my recorder was still running and that all the levels seemed ok and then lay back and listened as the dawn chorus started. The caper was still perched on the same branch high in a nearby tree. Suddenly at around 4.15am he flew down onto the moss below and started to call. I could hear other capers in the distance in all directions and every time one called..
My caper would respond by calling, flapping it's wings and leaping in the air in the direction of the calls. He was roughly 20m away from the hide and for the rest time I got the chance to really see for myself how colourful capers are. Like many birds, from a distance they just look black but when you look closer they have amazing metallic greens and blues and all shades in between. They also two bright white shoulder spots, which are very helpful for spotting them in low light, and wonderful bright red patch above their eyes. Below is a photo by Stefan Taylor of the caper near the hide I was in.
This male was a particularly impressive specimen with a large hooked beak. The size of this hook and how curved it is gives you a rough idea of the caper's age and this caper had a massive beak with a huge hook so he was obviously pretty old.
I got a good recording of him arriving in the trees to roost but, although he was displaying for quite a long time the recordings I got of the display song were a bit distant sounding
I was getting closer to getting the recording I wanted but wasn't quite there yet so I decided to have another shot the next night at a slightly different location. I setup my double mid side rig and disguised it with some scrim and branches again. I think this is always worth doing as birds seem to come closer and you get less alarm calls in your recordings when the rig is well hidden and blends in with the environment.
I spotted a likely display area a hide some mics on the moss so I also setup my Olympus LS-14 and a pair of Clippy EM172 mics. One thing I have discovered whilst trying to get a good caper recording is that the display call they make actually doesn't carry very far so to get a decent recording you have to get the mics very close.
I have figured out that with both of the setups I use I can get around 16 hours recording time. This turned out to be very handy as we tended to setup the mics at around 6pm and then pick them up around 10am the next morning to be sure we didn't disturb the capers.
I set both recorders running, checked I had formatted the cards, and check I had pressed record and headed back to the house for some dinner. It was reassuring to discover that all the other recordists have a deep paranoia about whether they have pressed record when they are leaving mics unattended. I now tend to check around three or more times! The house we were staying in was a traditional Swedish farms house that was warm and comfy and a lovely place to head back to to backup cards and take stock.
The next morning I went back and picked up the recorders and mics and headed home to see what I had. I tend to look at my recordings through a spectrogram as I find it saves time when finding interesting bits of sound. I have also started to be able to quickly recognize calls and can put in markers to help with editing later. To my excitement there were some really good looking recordings and when I listed I was happy to find that they sounded as good as they looked. Below is a mono version of a recording with the Clippy EM172 mics and the Olympus LS-14. Its a short clip of the whole recording.
Early the next morning at around 3am we went to a nearby forest to record the dawn chorus I got a few nice ambience recordings and then right as we were leaving I spotted a pigmy owl in a nearby tree. They are the world smallest owl but often take on prey their own size. Below is a picture by Stefan Taylor.
For the final night I headed out on a canoe to try and get some good surround sound recordings of frogs and toads calling. There was also a bittern on the lake near where we were staying and I have no good recordings of these so that was another target for the night. Bitterns make a very deep bassy call with three clicks before it. These click sounds are the inhaling air into their a huge air bladder in their neck. Sadly I didn't manage to get a recording of the bittern on its own but I still like the recording.
I absolutely love this way of recording. I wedge the tripod legs at the front end of the canoe and the slowly and carefully paddle to where I hear a sound I want to record. I then wedge the canoe on some reeds so that I don't get a moving sound image. It's proved a good way to get close to some species I would otherwise have had real trouble getting close to. It's takes a bit of nerve as I realised I had around £6,000 worth of kit in the canoe but I think as long as you don't go out when it's too windy it tends to be fine.
I ended up staying out on the lake till around 2 am and just headed back when I started to get too cold. It's was a very bright night with a full moon and I went to sleep with the sounds of bittern and frogs swirling round my head. The next day I headed home tired but happy.
I plan to make a sound library from all these recordings but I think it might take one more trip before I have enough high quality and varied recording to put a library together. It's good to have finally ticked Capercaillie off the list though.
For the accompanying audio clips and images, visit the original write-up on Pete's blog.