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Monday, 16 March 2015

A Ghost over the Marsh

For nearly two weeks, a Barn Owl (Tyto alba) has been seen over the rough grassland at Tottenham Marshes in North London.

We don't know where it roosts through the day, but as the sun sets, it comes out to hunt.

I've been over to see it twice so far, and yesterday evening shot these video clips.


The Barn Owl hunts both by sight and hearing. It flies soundlessly with even the rush of air over it's wings silenced by fringes on the feathers on the leading and trailing edges. This not only means that any prey (voles and other mammals) don't hear it coming, but also that there is no interference with it's own hearing. The facial disc helps to focus the sound, and the owl's ears are at different heights on the side of it's head to improve the ability to sense the direction of the sound.


I was watching the owl with friends from the Friends of Tottenham Marshes. Please like and follow their Facebook page or visit their website.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Wild sounds from my archives - Pink-footed Geese at dawn

It would be difficult to describe Snettisham as a beautiful place. At low tide, from Snettisham on the Norfolk side of The Wash, there is no land but mudflats for 15 miles across to Lincolnshire. There's a shingle bank, with a line of homes or holiday lets, behind which are some brackish lakes.

In winter, at dawn, it's bleak. If it's a clear morning, it's cold, too...
...but, for wildlife watchers, bleak can be beautiful because this is the scene of an ornithological spectacle.

Right here, as we stand on the shingle bank looking out across the estuary; as the sky lightens before dawn, a mile out across the mud we can just see a dark line. With the help of binoculars or a telescope, we can see that it's a large flock of geese.
Suddenly, following no trigger that we can see, they start to fly. The flock rises quickly, several thousand birds, and turns straight towards us. We now start to hear them. Starting as a low rumble, the sound gets louder as they approach. They are all calling - keeping the flock together - as they fly over our heads.  Finally the sound fades as they head inland to spend the day feeding on the fields.

Pink-footed Geese (Anser brachyrhynchus) in January 2011.
One wave has passed over us - just the last few stragglers can be heard.
Then another low rumble starts and another wave approaches...


Friday, 6 March 2015

A cascade of musical notes from high in the sky

Whatever my mood, hearing a Skylark (Alauda arvensis) singing somewhere overhead never fails to lift me up and bring a smile to my face.
I always have to look for him. Usually, he's way up high or far away but, occasionally, the song will be louder and I'll find him closer. Then I can see his wings whirring and his beak wide open shouting his fitness to the world.

I've long wanted to record the sound of a singing Skylark so, with Spring in the air at Rainham Marshes yesterday, I decided to give it a try.
The Southern Trail is the best place to find them. I settled on one of the benches between the Purfleet Hide and the Marshland Discovery Zone and waited for a Skylark to take to the air.

This one came closest. He circled over my head (I guess at about 50m up) and then gently drifted out over the marsh, eventually to land out of sight.
I did my best to follow him with my microphone. It's a parabolic reflector, so it has great sound-gathering power, but it's very directional. Any sudden changes in volume in the recording are caused by me not quite getting the mic pointed exactly at him.

There are plenty of non-Skylark and non-bird sounds! There's no way to avoid this at Rainham, surrounded by industry, road and rail. The background rumble, the motorbike and the people calling their dog are just "atmosphere"!
...and be warned and prepared for another bird song at 1 minute and 45 seconds. It's loud and it's a... Cetti's!

The resulting recording is a good start, but I definitely can do better. Maybe next time.
I don't have a good image of a flying Skylark, so here's one perched
on a fence at Rainham Marshes in 2011!