NHBS Equipment Specialist Johnny Mitchell, explains the ins and outs of acoustic recording in the field and highlights key equipment items to get you started.
In recent years advances in portable recording equipment have led to an increase in the exploration of listening as a method of engaging with as well as studying the natural world. This blog looks at a number of different equipment options across a range of budgets and objectives while briefly outlining some of the main technical considerations.
Equipment and Technical considerations
For those interested in having a go at sound recording a handheld recorder is a great starting point and Tascam have some great entry level options such as the DR-05 and DR-40 both of which allow you to record uncompressed audio. The advantage of this method is that the recorders are highly portable and require very little set up – invaluable if you’re out and need something that can be used at a moments notice.
The built-in microphones will not compete with a professional external microphone and if recording becomes more than a passing interest dedicated microphones can be a great way to optimise your setup for specific recordings. We cover a few of the microphones in our range below with a quick guide to their application. The right recorder should have a logical menu system and inputs that allow for a suitable upgrade path via the connection of external microphones.
I personally enjoy the use of stereo microphones for capturing the ambience of entire soundscapes. The Rode NT4 Stereo Microphone or Audio Technica AT8022 X/Y Stereo Microphoneare both great options for this, which contain two microphone capsules in a portable housing. Both models are examples of condenser microphones which will require external power to function. To provide this, look for a recorder that has XLR inputs and an option to turn on phantom power; the Tascam Dr-40 would be a suitable choice in this instance.
There are also several options designed exclusively for use in the field. A common type makes use of a parabolic dish, effectively acting as a kind of audio zoom lens making them useful for focusing in on a particular sound-source. Some of these systems require a different type of power known as plug-in power so you’ll need a recorder able to supply this via a 3.5mm mic/line input as found on the Tascam DR-05.
The Hi-sound and Telinga PRO-X systems are good examples of plug-in powered parabolic systems. If your recorder does not have plug-in power, you can use an XLR to PiP adaptor. This connects to the XLR outputs on your recorder and converts the phantom power produced by the recorder to plug-in power which can run the microphone.
Finally, we feature static recording devices such as the SM4 Acoustic from Wildlife Acoustics and the Bar-LT from Frontier Labs. These waterproof units feature built in omni-directional microphones and can be secured to any suitable surface. The long deployment times and scheduling functions make these ideal for long-term bioacoustic studies.
In the field
To test a small cross section of equipment, I headed to a small forest within the Dartmoor National Park to capture the distinctive call of the Common Cuckoo, armed with a Tascam DR-40, XLR to PiP adaptor, Hi-Sound Stereo Parabolic system and a Wildlife Acoustics SM4 Acoustic recorder.
I initially walked a narrow path that cut through a steep section of woodland, at this point the cuckoos could be heard faintly calling from lower down in the valley. Locating a suitable tree easily accessible from the path, I decided to deploy the SM4. The SM4 has been designed to be exceptionally quick to set up straight out of the box and for this field test, I set it to ‘always record’ and secured it in place with a Python Mini Cable Lock.
Static recorder in place, I then used the Tascam DR-40 whilst walking through the woodlands to capture the changing soundscapes as I moved away from the sound of the river and closer to the open moor.
The DR-40 has a clear front facing screen that is easy to read in all light levels, pressing the record button once arms the unit allowing you to see and hear the recording levels. A good pair of headphones is recommended for use with this unit as they are susceptible to a certain amount of handling noise.
I then connected the parabolic to the Hi-Sound parabolic to the Tascam using the XLR to PiP adapter.
Dropping off the path I headed towards the middle of the wood where the Cuckoos could be heard calling in the distance. The high directionality of the parabolic microphone was excellent allowing me to pick out individuals among the woodland birds present.
Late in the evening whilst preparing to pack up I was rewarded with a fantastic display as several cuckoos alighted on the trees around me, a recording of which is included below.
I highly recommend getting out and exploring natural soundscapes in your local area, especially at this time of year. As with any piece of equipment it takes a few trips to really get a feel of what they’re capable of, but any one of these items could become a reliable piece of gear for your sonic explorations.
To view our full range of sound recording equipment please visit www.nhbs.com. If you have any questions on our sound recording range or would like some advice on the best set-up for your project please contact us via email at email@example.com or phone on 01803 865913.
Joeri Bruyninckx traces the development of field recording and its use in field ornithology. Drawing on expertise from experimental music to serious science, it provides a thorough and wide-ranging investigation into the power of sound and listening.
Did you know that 94% of Britain isn’t built upon, that Snowdonia is larger and emptier than the Maasai Mara National Reserve, or that Scotland’s deer estates alone cover an area twice the size of Yellowstone National Park? Britain has all the empty space it needs for an epic wildlife recovery. So what’s stopping it from happening in our country – and how can we turn things around?
Author, Benedict Macdonald offered his valuable time to answer our questions about his important new contribution to the discussion of rewilding.
What inspired you to
become so passionate about restoring natural ecosystems?
In 2014, I began writing Rebirding in the certain knowledge that conservation in this country is failing, the birdsong around us is dying out every year, yet we have all the resources, skill and wildlife lobby to turn things around. I hope that in its small way, Rebirding will do for the UK what Sir David Attenborough’s Our Planet is beginning to do for worldwide conservation – to make people realise that nature is essential, profitable and saveable, even now – and that we have all the resources and skill to do so.
Tell us a little
about your background and how you became interested in the natural world?
I never remember the moment of first being fascinated by nature, but I do remember that by the time I was five, I would make weekend visits to Berkeley Castle Butterfly Farm and was entranced by watching the butterflies drinking salts from my fingertips, and I began a collection of ones passed to me by the lady running it – after they had died. Then early trips to the Welsh coast, and Norfolk, transformed that interest into a lifelong love of birds as well. From there, their plight has drawn me into understanding and studying ecosystems and a far wider understanding of protecting nature. Since then, my love of the natural world, both as a naturalist and a TV director, has now taken me to over forty countries.
At 14, I first remember telling someone at a dinner party that I wanted to work in wildlife television. Since graduating from university, I’ve been lucky to work on a range of programmes such as Springwatch, The One Show and The Hunt for the BBC. Last week, aged 31, I attended the premiere of Sir David Attenborough’s Our Planet for Netflix, launching in the Natural History Museum in London. This is the largest conservation series ever made. I work as the researcher and a field director for the Jungles and Grasslands episodes, directing a number of sequences including desert-nesting Socotra cormorants, the secret life of the Alcon Blue butterfly, and the remarkable lives of the world’s only tool-using Orangutans.
In your opinion, what
is the most detrimental practice to the wildlife of Britain?
We are often sold the untruth that what happens to British land is necessary for food production. This is almost entirely untrue. Only the profitable arable farms of the south, and east of our island, provide a bounty of food for our children. Dairy lawns and sheep farms in fact create tiny volumes of our daily diet relative to the land area they use. For example, 88% of Wales grows lamb, an optional food resource.
Of the epic wastage, however, the grouse moor is the ultimate. Eight percent of Britain’s land is burned for the creation of 0.0008% of its jobs and a contribution of just 0.005% to our GDP. For hundreds of years, thousands of beautiful wild animals have been removed, just so that Red Grouse can be turned into living clay pigeons and killed in their thousands once a year. Even hunters from other countries find this wasteful and disgusting. This area covers an area twice the size of Yellowstone National Park – blocking jobs and wildlife alike on an epic scale. Hunting estates in Finland or Sweden, by contrast, juggle the ambition of hunters to shoot a few animals with ecosystems of immense beauty and variety.
Wildlife and commerce
are often presented as being in conflict, do you think this is a fair
assessment, or can land stewardship that favours biodiversity over profit be of
This is surely the greatest imaginary
conflict of our time, successful insinuated, perhaps, by the damaging economies
that prevent nature from reaching its full economic potential in our country. In truth, wildlife IS commerce. Nature IS money.
Every year, even without a single charismatic megafauna such as Bison, Elk or Lynx running wild in our country, without a ‘Yellowstone’ or ‘Maasai Mara’, the English adult population make just over 3 billion visits to the natural environment each year, spending £21 billion as they do so. In Scotland, nature-based tourism is estimated to produce £1.4 billion per year, along with 39,000 FTE jobs.
In contrast, the current models
of upland farming demand money from us to survive, but they do not reciprocate
jobs, income or natural capital – this is life on benefits and there is no
future for young people in it. In
contrast, wherever nature is allowed to flourish, it’s capital potential is
wondrous. In 2009, the RSPB’s lovely but
very small reserves brought £66 million to local economies, and created 1,872
FTE jobs. This is more than all of England’s grouse moors, but in just a
fraction of their land area.
Right now, however, we are just seeing snapshots of how nature can power and rekindle communities. In Rebirding we often look to other countries to see how true ecosystems could transform economies on a far greater scale. The final myth that we kick into touch is that Britain is short of space, 94% of our country is not built upon. Most of this area does not create essential food supplies – and is jobs-poor.
Is there one single practise or cultural shift that would be of most benefit to restoring natural ecosystems?
The Forestry Commission is the largest single land manager in Britain. It now needs to split its forests in two – rewilding key estates like the New Forest and the Forest of Dean: cutting down the spruce and replanting with native trees, then, crucially, leaving large native animals such as Beavers, Elk, cattle and horses to become the foresters. Economies in these forests would be driven through ecotourism revenues and perhaps some hunting. Elsewhere, timber forests would remain. It is hard to think of one single decision that could effect a greater transformation on British land than a decision to return Britain’s once world-class oak-lands to our nation. Another, however, would be if Scotland’s deer estates, which again cover an area twice the size of Yellowstone, could be incentivised to rewild and regrow their trees. Hunting could remain – but in this regrowing wilderness would be the potential for Elk, Lynx, Wildcats and a huge expansion in woodland species like Capercaillie.
Are you optimistic
for the future of Britain’s wildlife?
Yes – but only if our conservationists act with the same pragmatism and determination as those who have prevented land reform for decades. In my closing chapter, I’ve argued that whilst farming unions behave with absolute conviction and coherence, our nature charities often simply say that a few more Skylarks would be nice. Only if we can unlock the economic arguments of nature, and harness the millions of voices effectively, will we see large areas rewilded in our country. It is the social and economic transformation that nature provides that needs to be realised – but for that, you need space, and power over land. At that moment, things will change. In my lifetime, I genuinely believe that after many fierce battles, we will see Dalmatian Pelicans flying over Somerset, and huge areas of Scotland, Wales and upland England slowly returned to a wilder state. But without absolute conviction this is possible, it will never come to pass.
This year’s Big Garden Birdwatch will be held from 26-28 January: are you ready?
The RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch is the world’s largest garden wildlife survey – now in its 40th year! What began as a simple activity for junior members of the RSPB has now grown to a UK-wide activity with over half a million people regularly taking part. With 40 years of data to look back on, this annual event has become important in helping the RSPB monitor trends in the distribution and abundance of birds in the UK.
The Big Garden Birdwatch is easy to join (and you don’t have to be a member of the RSPB). Here’s how to take part:
Choose a good place to watch from for an hour between between Saturday 26th and Monday 28th January – either your garden, or a local park or green.
Relax and watch the birds.
Count the maximum number of each species you see at any one time. For example, if you see a group of three house sparrows together and later another two, and after that another one, the number to submit is three. That way, it’s less likely you’ll double-count the same birds.
Make a note of any other wildlife that you spot as well.
Submit your results, either on the Big Garden Birdwatch website, or by posting a paper form. Even if you don’t see anything, that’s still useful information.
Look out for the results.
You don’t need much to take part in BGB apart from a nice hot drink, some snacks and a pen and paper; but if you’d like to brush up on your garden wildlife here are a few books and items that can get you started:
After 18 years in preparation, the highly anticipated two-volume Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds is now in stock and available from NHBS. Continue reading for a behind-the-scenes look at the logistics behind the arrival of such an exciting title.
Due to the incredible popularity of this book, four members of our staff dedicated three entire days to unpacking eight pallets of books, carefully repacking them and dispatching them to our eagerly awaiting customers.
Watch the video below for a behind-the-scenes look at how this all happened.
We still have plenty of copies of the Handbook in stock, so order now and take advantage of our special price.
We currently have a limited number of signed copies available!
For most of her life, Miriam Darlington has obsessively tracked and studied wildlife. Qualified in modern languages, nature writing and field ecology, she is a Nature Notebook columnist at The Times. Her first book, Otter Country was published in 2012 and her latest book, Owl Sense was recently Book Of Week on BBC Radio 4.
We recently chatted to Miriam concerning her quest for wild encounters with UK and European owls.
It seems the main threat to barn owl numbers is the way our landscape has changed regarding commercial development and farming methods. What do you think is the single most important action regarding land management that could halt their decline and get their numbers growing sustainably?
It is all about protecting the owls’ habitat. As field vole and small mammal specialists the owls need rough grassland, where the small mammals live. The rough grassland needs to be protected, and wide enough strips around the field margins maintained and left so that a deep, soft litter layer of dead grasses can build up. This litter layer is essential for voles to tunnel through; this is what they need to survive, so it is all about helping farmers to be aware of this and funding them to manage this type of wildlife-friendly grasslands. Nesting sites are also vital; as mature trees are not replaced, and barns are unsympathetically converted, the owls will have no roosts and no nesting sites. Barn Owls need specialised, sheltered nest boxes in farm buildings. If they can feed, they can breed, and if they can breed they will continue to grace our countryside.
The volunteer work you undertook with The Barn Owl Trust was very interesting, but seemed quite intrusive to these reclusive, easily alarmed birds. What can you say to assuage my concerns?
The Barn Owl site surveys that I observed and described may seem like an intrusion, but it was a vital part of the BOT’s conservation work and always carried out with the utmost care. I would describe it as a necessary intrusion, as it was part of a 10-yearly survey, an information gathering exercise altogether essential for our knowledge of how many owls are breeding in Devon and the South West. The status and numbers of occupied sites were ascertained, and farmers, landowners and general public could be advised accordingly; nest boxes were repaired or replaced, risks assessed and owners given invaluable conservation advice. I described an incident in the book where an owl flew out of the barn we were surveying, demonstrating that owls are very sensitive, the utmost care is always taken, and the laws around the protection of owls are very strict. We were working in warm, dry conditions and no harm came to the owls. The Barn Owl Trust work under licence from Natural England, knowing that if any owl is inadvertently disturbed, they will usually quickly return to their roost. However, with the risks in mind, the greatest care and respect as well as a strict protocol was always followed when surveying sites . We had to work quietly and quickly, counting, ringing and weighing young as rapidly as possible with no time wasted. Adult owls often roost away from the nest due to it being full of pestering young, so they were usually unaffected by our visit. In other cases, the adult owl(s) looked but stayed put as they were well hidden. In some cases, for instance busy working farm barns, the owls are used to all sorts of noise, machinery and disruption, and were completely habituated, and not disturbed at all. Most of the time the adult owls I saw were vigilant, rather than stressed. The young have no idea what is happening and become biddable when approached. All-in-all, the value of the data we gathered would far outweigh any small intrusions. But the general public should be aware that it is illegal to recklessly enter a nesting site without a licence, especially with the knowledge that owls are breeding there.
Historically, owls were viewed as harbingers of doom. This seems to have been replaced by the commercial ‘cutifying’ of owls. Can this still be considered a sort-of reverence – is this the best regard wild animals can now expect?
No, I feel we need more than that; we need to respect their wildness, not their cuteness. Humans need to remember to keep our distance; the owls are not there for our enjoyment after all, but as a vital part of a healthy ecosystem. It helps to attract our attention that they are beautiful and charismatic, and it can be thrilling to catch sight of one, but I don’t feel that simply seeing them as cute is any help at all. We need a deeper respect for them than that. We need to care for, respect and understand their needs, but I think reverence is probably too much to ask! I would say sympathy is important, and that should be taught/encouraged in schools.
I found the descriptions of Eagle Owls foraging around waste dumps quite disconcerting. Away from their natural environment, sustaining themselves on human waste seems a sad fate for any animal, let alone a magnificent eagle owl. Am I being overly sentimental and unrealistic?
Yes, it’s easy to see only ugliness there, and it seems like a shame, yes perhaps it is disconcerting, but it shows these creatures are adaptable. It is not desperation, it is opportunistic…and they were feeding on rats, not human waste, so it was probably win-win.
Staying with human and wild animal interactions, you mention recent new builds and the impact they can have. As the rate of new builds is unlikely to decline, do you think developers could do more to take wildlife into account and, if so, what would these measures look like and how would they be enforced?
I believe developers are legally obliged now, and have been for some years, by local authorities, to survey for wildlife and to mitigate for any wildlife found to be breeding there. I visited a site on the edge of my town recently where some of the houses had bat boxes and swift boxes. It is legally enforced already, but many people may be unaware of this.
Captive owls are increasingly popular, and you wrote a reflective passage concerning a little owl called Murray. Even naming a wild animal is anathema to many conservationists. However, your initial concern about a captive owl seemed to diminish as you saw the effect it had on the audience. Do you think displaying captive birds can help conservation efforts?
It is very complex. I don’t think keeping and displaying captive wild animals is the best idea, ultimately. Humans have been domesticating animals for millennia however and it is interesting to look at the long view. Although I am very uncomfortable with keeping wild animals as pets, I have witnessed two things: 1. That when they are kept properly by experienced professionals, they do not seem to suffer and can lead long and relatively safe and healthy lives; and 2. that they can have benefits; increased sympathy and understanding for the species, aspirational opportunities for marginalised people, help for suffering or socially isolated people. I’m not a scientist however. I don’t feel qualified to make the final decision on this. It’s easy to pontificate about the morality of it all, and to see the risks, but not so easy to untangle the costs to the animal and the benefits, economic, emotional and otherwise to some humans. In the end, when we wanted an animal for my family, we got a domestic dog, not an owl. I think that’s the best one could wish for, in the circumstances.
In your previous book Otter Country you describe the places you are in with as much awe as the animal you are hoping to see – the same with Owl Sense. Is it the wild place or its occupiers that move us? Even the government’s recent 25 Year Environment Plan alludes to the mental and physical health benefits natural spaces can provide; do you think conservation efforts would be better focused on wild places for their own sake or concentrate on the fauna and flora that inhabits them?
You can’t separate the two. The habitat comes first, but any expert will tell you that the animals are inseparable from their natural habitats. Look at what happened when wolves were reintroduced to Yosemite. The whole ecosystem began to restore itself when the wolves came back. My philosophy is to describe both; I feel passionately about the connections of the whole ecosystem, including the humans in it. I want to engender understanding and sympathy for that inseparableness. For most people, however, I expect going to a countryside place or a wild place is the most important, and encountering a wild animal, or knowing that there is a possibility of it will come second. I have focussed on owls and employed them as ambassadors, and animals can certainly attract public sympathy, but I suspect it is ownership of the land, stewardship of the land, the economic, health and social impacts of the land, that might win us the argument.
Your journey to Serbia to see the long-eared owls was amazing. So many owls, living in apparent harmony in close proximity to humans. As these spaces develop, however, this balance will of course shift, and not in favour of the owls. The only hope offered seemed to be tourism and, ironically, hunters preserving the landscape. Do you see these two options as the only solutions to ensuring the long-term survival of long-eared owls in Serbia?
Yes. I wouldn’t call it harmony necessarily, more like tolerance! The owls have been coming to the towns for many, many years and that will not change as long as the roost trees are preserved and farming does not intensify too quickly. As with Barn Owls, the owls need to fly out into the fields as they feed on the small rodents and small birds in the farmland.. this may become threatened with changes in farming as the country becomes more prosperous. Ecotourism will probably protect the state of things, as with the large owl roosts that are so spectacular; this economically deprived country needs every help it can get. The local people have caught on to this, but the authorities have some way to go with supporting it and fully and sustainably harnessing it. They key would be to harness ecotourism wholeheartedly. And yes, the hunters wish to preserve the habitats, which is excellent. It seems like the best arrangement, in the circumstances, and probably quite sustainable.
Your French guide, Gilles alluded to a dislike towards bird watchers (les ornithos) in the provinces. He said that, while in the countryside, he couldn’t leave his bird book on show in the car as people would slash his tyres. Things aren’t so bad here in the UK, but do you consider being a conservationist akin to being a radical and a subversive? – has protecting the environment fully entered the consciousness of the mainstream?
I think it has entered mainstream consciousness, and has some superb advocates now, but the activists should never let down their guard; we all need activists keeping an eye because right now we can never afford to be complacent – complacency is a very human trait and one that has brought us into this mess. We need to be constantly asking questions, constantly probing, curious and vigilant, and if that is a form of activism, I’m with the activists. It’s about questions and sometimes challenges, I think that’s what the best journalism, environmentalism, nature writing, scientists and conservationists do best.
You make it clear that the decision to leave the EU is not what you would have wished for. Aside from potentially losing a connection with mainland Europe, do you envisage any pro and cons for the UK environment regarding Brexit?
I’m not enough of an expert to be able to answer that. I was mortified to find that Britain was going to separate itself from what appeared to be a friendly and well-meaning, beneficial alliance, especially in terms of conservation regulations, but am completely naïve about the economic and the conservation implications for the future – I think we just have to continue working to call our leaders to account, and never lose sight of our priorities.
Miriam’s writing centres on the tension, overlaps and relationships between science, poetry, nature writing and the changing ecology of human-animal relations. On a personal note I thought Owl Sense fulfilled this challenging undertaking. The personal and evocative writing, all underpinned by the ecology, biology and historical significance of these amazing animals made this a joy to read.
Miriam called into NHBS to sign our stock; these will be available only while stocks last.
The RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch is the world’s largest garden wildlife survey – in 2017 almost half a million people submitted results! Now in its 39th year, this annual event has become vital in helping the RSPB monitor trends in the abundance and distribution of birds in the UK.
This year the survey takes place from Saturday 27th to Monday 29th January. It’s a great activity for the whole family, and all it takes is an hour of your time. Here’s how to take part:
Choose a good place to view your garden. If you don’t have a garden then wrap up warm and head down to your local park or green space to take part from there.
Watch the birds for an hour, counting the maximum number of each species you see at any one time. (This reduces the likelihood of counting the same bird more than once). Don’t forget to make a note of any other wildlife that you spot as well.
The Everyday Guide to British Birds Charlie Elder
The perfect companion for nature enthusiasts and birdwatching beginners. It describes the most common and widespread species that a birder is likely to come across in Britain, and illustrates the features that make each of them unique.
Collins Bird Guide Lars Svensson
The UK’s most popular bird guide. Covering Britain and Europe, the book provides all the information needed to identify any species at any time of year, with detailed text on size, habitat, range, identification and voice.
Britain’s Birds: An Identification Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland Rob Hume et al. Focusing on identification and containing maps, facts and figures on numbers and distributions, this breakthrough publication was devised by a team of lifelong birdwatchers, all with many years’ experience of showing people birds and producing user-friendly field guides.
Guide to the Top 50 Garden Birds Edward Jackson and Andrew Simms
This handy fold-out guide is designed to help identify the majority of species likely to be found in a garden throughout the year. The choice of ‘top 50’ is based on the relative abundance of species recorded in the UK by the BTO Garden BirdWatch survey.
RSPB Pocket Guide to British Birds Simon Harrap
A compact and informative field guide which covers more than 200 of the most common birds found in Britain. Features concise descriptions of each bird’s main characteristics including plumage, calls and song, confusion species, habitat, distribution and status, and behaviours.
A Practical Illustrated Guide to Attracting and Feeding Garden Birds Ed. by Jen Green
This is the complete book of bird feeders, bird tables, birdbaths, nest boxes and backyard bird watching. It helps you learn what to feed garden birds, from seeds, grains and peanuts to fruits, suet cakes and fat balls, as well as how to attract birds by planting the right flowers, trees and shrubs.
We caught up with the authors, Keith Betton and Mark Avery, to ask them some questions about this insightful, humorous, thought-provoking and thoroughly unique approach to getting to the core of what makes birders tick.
Many of the interviewees’ route into birding was roaming the countryside near their homes during their childhood, often in rural locations. With parents now reluctant to let their children stray and wild spaces less common, do you think this presents a problem and if so, what is the best route now for children to discover and connect with the natural world?
Keith: I do see this as a problem for many young people who want to experience nature. Also, it is now more complicated for schools to organise nature rambles because of the health and safety checks that need to be made. There are still great local groups organised by RSPB Wildlife Explorers and some of the Wildlife Trusts – but just going out on your own is no longer an easy option.
Mark: It is a bit of a problem – but arguably the problem is in the parents’ heads. Looking back, I think I was a bit too cautious with my children and I was a lot less cautious than many parents. It is to do with what is normal – when I was a kid I headed out into the countryside all day and apart from a few bruises and grazes never came to any harm, but very few children get that delicious freedom these days.
I was encouraged that so many birders end up working in wildlife/conservation. What do you think inspires a young birder to move into conservation and not just focus on birds?
Keith: This is more a question for Mark I think. But they need to have passion for the bigger picture of conservation and not be thinking about earning much money.
Mark: Doing something that you feel is worthwhile and working with kindred spirits is a great way to spend your working life. You spend a lot of time at work – why not get a real kick out of it!
As the title suggests, all the interviewees were using binoculars and telescopes from quite an early age. I had binoculars from an early age (ostensibly for plane-spotting) but preferred to use my normal sight. Is it possible to be a birder without binoculars? Can you think of the gains and losses from using the naked eye instead of magnification?
Keith: The likes of Gilbert White in the 1700s made do without binoculars as they had not been invented, but today they are easy to obtain and don’t have to cost a fortune. Using all of your senses to detect nature is important, but unless you can see the details of the plumage you are missing out on so much.
Mark: Ears are important too. I’ve sometimes recorded how many species I detect and identify by sound before sight and it’s usually about 40% of them on a walk around my local area. Being attuned to nature comes with time. I have been walking down a busy noisy street in London and heard a bird call way above my head (often a Grey Wagtail – a bird with a loud simple flight call) and looked up to see it. No-one else paid it any attention of course. If I’d seen anyone else looking up I’d have known they were birders.
There is lots of travelling in this book; I’m going to avoid the obvious question regarding carbon footprint and concentrate on the positive. Jon Hornbuckle’s alarmingly dangerous travel adventures also resulted in him helping protect endangered birds and forests in Peru. What are the benefits travelling birders can bring to the birding and conservation movements?
Keith: If there were no people watching birds and wildlife in many of the world’s national parks then I think a significant number would be turned over to agriculture. If we all travelled everywhere the world’s carbon emissions would increase to the extent that climate change would accelerate further. But if birders travel to conservation areas then the local people have a reason to want those areas to be saved.
Mark: No, the obvious question is the best one. Why do nature lovers travel so much when they know it harms nature? Beats me!
In the ‘Last Thoughts’ chapter of the book you mention that the demographic for birders is rather mature and mainly men. You claim this gender balance is improving and bearing that in mind, what do you think a similar book to yours would look like in twenty years time?
Keith: While the gender imbalance is shifting I doubt it will ever reach 50/50, so such a book would probably still contain more accounts from males than females. The average age in both of our books was around 50-60, and partly that’s because you want to talk about what people have done in the past – and older people have more stories to tell. But it would be good to move that average age down a bit!
Mark: I think the differences in birding and nature conservation in 20 years’ time will be more interesting than the gender of who is talking about them. But I hope and expect a more even gender balance.
There was often some discussion about ‘boots on the ground’ verses ‘reports and research’ approach to birds and conservation. What are your thought about the right balance between meetings, media and marketing strategies verses getting your hands dirty in ‘the field’?
Keith: You need both – but the danger is that too much money can be devoted to discussing a conservation plan and then not enough to make the plan happen. One of my biggest concerns is the obsession with safety audits before even a simple action. I was really struck by Roy Dennis’s account of being at an Osprey nest tree that was at risk of falling down and just needed a few nails and strips of timber to keep it in place. None of the staff sent to inspect it could fix the tree as there had not been a full safety audit, so Roy just climbed up and did it himself. That’s boots on the ground (well boots on the tree actually!).
Mark: Conservation needs both. I started as a scientist working in the field – and loved it. But if you work for an organisation, and you rise up the hierarchy, you are going to spend more time wearing a tie, sitting in meetings and less in the rain with sore feet. We really do need people with a wide variety of skills to change the world. I do think though, well I would wouldn’t I, that having some senior people who have come through the ranks and know what it is like out in the field and at the base of the organisation is a good thing?
I really enjoyed Barbara Young’s interview, she had so much energy and conviction. I imagine her strident views and no-nonsense approach shook a few people up and she was convinced that nature conservation is a political issue. Do you agree – should nature conservation be more political, should birders and anglers for example see common ground, put differences aside and be a stronger political voice – should they even back a political party which shares their values or is that too far a step? If it is too far a step, how do you think the voice of birders and conservationists can be heard in the modern media blizzard that everyone is subjected to?
Keith: I’ll let Mark answer
Mark: Nature conservation is self-evidently political because it depends on altering people’s behaviour (and often they don’t want to change). You can’t increase Skylark numbers much without influencing hundreds or thousands of farmers. It’s difficult to talk to them all and persuade them to farm differently, but a change in incentives or legal requirements can get to lots of them. And that’s politics! Whether you use a stick or a carrot is politics. I don’t for a moment claim that birdwatchers must be political, but nature conservationists have to influence politics to have much impact. And the organisations to which we pay our subscriptions have to do a better job, as came out in a couple of interviews, at making that case. I don’t think that birders and anglers have completely overlapping views, but they do have partly overlapping needs – and that’s why they should work closer together on some issues (even if they fight like cats on others).
I can see why searching for rarities would be so addictive and many of the interviewees are very keen on recording them: what rarities do you expect to see turning up on these shores and which birds might go from rare to common in the UK over the next ten years?
Keith: Already in the last ten years my main birding area (Hampshire) has lost Yellow Wagtail and Tree Sparrow as a breeding species, and soon we may lose Willow Tit and Wood Warbler. We are likely to gain Great White Egret and Cattle Egret as breeders in the next ten years. As for real vagrants I think we’ll just keep getting a few new ones, although species that are declining in Europe (such as Aquatic Warbler) will turn up much less often.
Mark: Experience shows that we aren’t very good at getting these guesses right! Pass!
My final question maybe should have been my first, but can you tell me what inspired you to start interviewing birders in the first place?
Keith: It struck me that some of the real trailblazers of ornithology (such as Phil Hollom) were not going to be able to share their stories for much longer and so I sat down and got him to tell me about his life. Mark had a similar idea and came up with the idea for Behind the Binoculars. He wanted to interview me for the book. I agreed, and as it was still an early idea I suggested some other people who might be interesting to interview. In the end we realised we both had lots of ideas, and we agreed to work as a team.
Mark: They are interesting – sometimes peculiar, sometimes inspirational but interesting all the same.
About the authors
Keith Betton is a keen world birder, having seen over 8,000 species in over 100 countries. In the UK he is heavily involved in bird monitoring, where he is a County Recorder. He has been a Council member of both the RSPB and the BTO, currently Vice President of the latter.
Dr Mark Avery, many moons ago, worked for the RSPB and for 13 years was its Conservation Director. He is now a writer, blogger and environmental campaigner and is prominent in the discussions over the future of driven grouse shooting in the UK.
Behind More Binoculars: Interviews with Acclaimed Birdwatchers is available to order from NHBS
Signed Copies Available
NHBS attended the recent BTO Conference and Keith has kindly signed some stock of Behind More Binoculars; we have a very limited stock, so should you order, please state ‘signed copy’ in the comments and we will do our best. If you want to catch up on the first volume of interviews we currently have a special offer on the hardback edition.
From all of us at NHBS, we wish you plenty of happy and successful birding adventures in 2018.
Orison for a Curlew takes us on a pilgrimage in search of the slender-billed curlew; once a common sight in its breeding grounds of Siberia, but now diminished to a handful of unconfirmed sightings. In this article, one of our book team Nigel Jones, talks to the author, Horatio Clare, about conservation, environmentalism and his hopes for the future of the titular bird.
Despite the rather gloomy prognosis for the fate of the slender-billed curlew, your book seems to me about hope. Are you optimistic that conservation will gain ground due to stories such as the plight of Numenius tenuirostris, or do you think this story is more of a prelude of things to come?
It is about hope. I do think the hunger for watching nature footage, and writing and reading about the natural world will translate, given the unavoidable nature of climate and environmental awareness as the world changes, into action. My sense of my generation, currently in our forties, is that we came out of an easy time – the nineties – well aware of how lucky we were, and how things were going with the planet and capitalism generally – and that we have not seen the best of us yet. We have been getting it together, I know of great people in powerful positions, and others doing tremendous work, and I hope things will change for the better. Brexit and Trump are shattering reversals for the world and nature, but not insurmountable. Moreover, it seems the slender-billed curlew may not be on the way out! A population may breed in Kazakhstan and the birds may have been seen and filmed a few years ago in Holland.
Being such a delicate and ethereal creature; do you think the slender-billed curlew was always vulnerable to possible extinction, regardless of human activity; was there a more dominant species pushing it out of it’s niche?
No I am sure we are the dominant species which pushed it out, by draining marshes and polluting the water. It was surely vulnerable in that it is highly specialised.
The relentless corrosion of diminishing natural spaces is a strong theme in your book. The argument for development is usually ‘people come first’ and, by definition, wild spaces are mainly unoccupied by people. I would love to see the hundreds of white pelicans, spiralling up to find the thermals that you describe. However, most of us will only see a spectacle such as this on television, or envisage it vicariously. For me this is the paradox of conserving wild spaces for their own sake – how do we get everyone involved with conservation when only a few people ever get to experience what it creates? How do we make wild spaces matter to everybody?
Knowledge of the natural world and knowing what you are looking at can make a walk in the garden, park or road a safari. That is the way you make every space matter: put names and stories on the creatures that inhabit it. Funnily enough I have written two children’s books on the subject! Which makes me think, children’s literature being a kind of menagerie, we all begin as nature-lovers; it’s just that some adults discount the planet’s marvels, and certainly its needs. And of course corporations exist solely to harvest the planet’s riches as quickly as possible, heedless of environmental cost, if they are allowed to be, for the benefit of share-holders. I think some form of cooperativism between individuals and between nations offers the only hope for long-term sustainability.
There are some conservationists that advocate adopting a more laissez-faire approach to extinction, moving priorities to bio-abundance rather than biodiversity and accepting that extinction and invasive species are part of the evolutionary process. What are your thought regarding this way of thinking?
It is a sin to cause the extinction of a species, as Prof Kiss puts it in Orison. To fail to prevent the extinction of a species seems of a different order, if hard to enjoy. If you regard our privilege of dominance as responsibility, then we have a duty to look after all of what used to be called God’s creatures. We should not really accept anything less than bio-abundance and biodiversity, should we?
I really enjoyed meeting all the people in your book; their dedication, passion and commitment to the cause of conservation was wonderfully described, without ever reducing them to parodies or caricatures. For me they represented the ‘hope’ in your book. However, they all seemed at odds with the world, probably viewed by their relative governments as part of an ‘awkward squad’ and their work and funding was often in decline. What would you say to inspire a future generation of conservationist to take up the baton?
With journalism going through tough times, there is no better way to have the fun and the interest of being the awkward squad, travelling the world, getting up the noses of baddies and making the planet a better place than becoming an environmentalist! What a blessed and admirable profession! What adventure it offers! And…the happiest people you meet are naturalists and environmentalists, on the whole, though they deal in tragedy and folly often.
The hunting for sport, the mist nets and the bird markets make for a very threatening environment for migrating birds. However, it’s the drainage of the marshes for agriculture and the encroachment and contamination of heavy industry that you more frequently allude to as the biggest threat. Do you see hunting as a potential partner to conservation, or are those two pursuits always going to be in conflict?
Having just read Bowland Beth: The Life of an English Hen Harrier by David Cobham I feel hunting is unhelpful, if not abominable, but that may be a grouse-centric view. In Greece the numerous hunters are thought of with something like revulsion by some conservationists; the hunting I saw while living in Italy was an absolute disgrace. No doubt many hunters are great and ardent conservationists. Unfortunately many are not.
The slender-billed curlew sightings in recent history are difficult to verify. What are your hunches about their authenticity and when was the last recorded sighting that you believe was accurate?
The birds filmed in Holland in 2013 seem genuine but I am no expert. I believe they are seen – and recorded – now and then. I heard a report from Oman, but a confirmed sighting is a tricky thing: it seems you need two or more photos and absolute proof. My friend Istavan Moldovan is cautious about the 2013 footage – as I write he is chasing relict populations of Apollo butterflies in the Carpathians in Romania. Does that not sound like a great career?
The last question is a simple one, but maybe the most difficult to answer. I know you certainly hope so, but do you believe Numenius tenuirostris will ever be seen again?
I absolutely do. I am quite sure they are out there and it is my dream to see one! Thank you so much for your wonderfully intelligent and acute questions, quite the best!
Orison for a Curlew, written by Horatio Clare and illustrated by Beatrice Forshall, is published by Little Toller Books and is available in paperback and hardback.
Little Toller was established in 2008 with a singular purpose: to revive forgotten and classic books about nature and rural life in the British Isles.
Their Nature Classics Library series was established to re-publish gems of natural history writing, with up-to-date introductions by contemporary writers. The success of the series has now developed into a publishing programme which includes a series of monographs by authors like Fiona Sampson, John Burnside, Iain Sinclair and Adam Thorpe as well as stand-alone books – all attuned to nature and landscape and aimed at the general reader.
Each Little Toller writer brings something new to the series – but it’s always characterised by a deep understanding of the subject, combined with wonderful writing. A sense of the personal reaction to the natural world is imperative. Little Toller also pay a great deal of attention to the aesthetic of their books, using artists to complement the writing to create a beautiful object, befitting Little Toller’s high publishing standards.
Little Toller is now preparing its books for the latter part of the year, notably the first ever biography of the legendary but enigmatic J A Baker, author of The Peregrine, and access to the new Baker archive has led to important new insights into his life. 2018 will see new books from Tim Dee on Landfill, a book about Ted Hughes and fishing called The Catch, and an examination of the landscape of the north of the Irish republic from Sean Lysaght. Little Toller’s sister charity Common Ground is also working on a large exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park next year, for which there will be a raft of publishing.
Co-authors James Eaton and Nick Brickle share some of their birding insights and in-depth knowledge of the region’s avifauna in this interview with NHBS.
Could you tell us a little about how you became interested in birding and what drew you to this region in particular?
James – My Grandmother gave me a copy of Benson’s Observer’s Book of Birds when I was six, and, wanting to see some of the birds in the illustrations in real life, my father agreed to take me to the local nature reserve to look for them, and from that point on it became an obsession!
Nick – Similar story. I got hooked before I was 10 years old, partly thanks to Choughs, Peregrines and my dad’s old binoculars on family holidays to Pembrokeshire. Ten years later and I found myself surveying White-winged Ducks in Sumatra and never looked back.
What inspired you to create a field guide that covers the entire Indonesian Archipelago? It must have been quite a challenge to cover such a diverse region.
All four of us are pretty obsessed with the region’s birds, both as a hobby and professionally, and all of us have travelled pretty widely in the region over many years. During this time the region has gone from having no bird field guide at all, to having a variety of books covering different parts of it; some now already long out of print. We all decided it was time to put our passion into a project that could do justice to the spectacular diversity to be found here, and so agreed to work together to create the new guide.
Could you explain a little about the unique biogeography of the region which makes it such a biodiversity hotspot?
Hard to sum it up in a sentence! It’s a fantastic combination of Asian and Australasian bird families, spread across 1000s of islands, with Wallace’s famous line running down the middle, and spectacular endemism throughout. For more, read the biogeographical history section in the introduction to the field guide!
Who is your target audience for the book?
Anyone with an interest in the birds of the region! Visiting and resident birdwatchers are the obvious user, but given that it includes over 13% of the world’s birds, anyone with an interest in birds should enjoy it. In due course we also hope to produce an Indonesian language version of the guide, so as to make it more accessible to the growing number of local birdwatchers.
For someone visiting the area for the first time, what are some of the most exciting sites, and the key species that you recommend looking out for?
Where to start! Within Indonesia, the best places for an introduction are probably the mountains and forests of West Java, which are easy to visit from Jakarta, and where many of the most sought after Javan endemics can be seen; or perhaps North Sulawesi, where a trip to see hornbills, endemic kingfishers and Maleo can be combined with beaches and diving; or Bali, where one of Indonesia’s rarest and most spectacular birds – the Bali Starling – can be seen with a short trip from the beach resorts.
Another choice for an easy introduction is the Malaysian state of Sabah in the north of Borneo. Here many spectacular and endemic birds can be seen from the comfort of first-rate hotels, including Great Argus and the completely unique Bristlehead. After that, the opportunities are limitless!
How do you kit yourself out for a birdwatching trip to the region, and can you recommend a great birding gadget or app?
At the simplest, you don’t need much more than a pair of binoculars (and maybe a rain coat or umbrella!). Beyond that it depends a bit on where you are going and what you’d like to see: a telescope can be useful, but is rarely essential, sound playback or recording equipment can be very useful, a camera if you like to take photos, camping equipment if you plan to visit very remote regions. If you plan to explore off the beaten track (and there are lots of parts of the region that qualify as this!) then a phone and google maps can be a surprisingly useful way to look for patches of forest, and then all you need to do is try and make your way towards them!
Do you have any favourites among the species in the guide? Are there any that proved particularly elusive or challenging to observe?
James – Difficult question, can I give two answers? One would be Helmeted Hornbill. Such an iconic bird that symbolises the region’s rainforests. You know when you hear the bird’s incredible mechanical laughing call you are in the rainforest, but equally you are reminded how it is disappearing from many areas due to illegal hunting for its casque. Another would be Bornean Ground Cuckoo. Once a mysterious bird, largely unknown due to its shy nature, feeding on the rainforest floor, but now as our understanding of the species has grown it is possible to see it. Nothing gets the adrenalin pumping quite as much as looking for this species.
Nick – Too many to choose from! For me it would have to be something that walks on the ground… pretty much any pitta, pheasant or partridge is a candidate. Maybe Banded Pitta (any of the three species…)? Or the spectacular Ivory breasted Pitta? Then of course there is Rail Babbler… Actually, more often than not my favourite is the last new species that I have seen, or the next new one that I want to see!
With so many endemic species, there must be some that fill very specific ecological niches?
Endemism is very high in the region, and many species are only found within very small ranges, such as Boano Monarch on an island only 20km wide, or Sangihe Island, only 40km long at its widest point, and with five endemic bird species. Damar Flycatcher too, found in the dark understorey of a tiny island that requires two days’ boat travel from the nearest city. Kinabalu Grasshopper Warbler is only found on the top of two mountain tops in Borneo. When it comes to specific niches, however, small island endemics are often the opposite, in that they often expand their niche due to the absence of competitors. Birds filling very specific niches are probably more a feature of the large islands groups like Borneo and Sumatra, where the overall diversity is much greater.
It is quite well publicised that one of the biggest threats to the conservation of all Indonesian species is rapid deforestation to create palm oil plantations. Are there other threats to bird species which also need to be highlighted?
Deforestation is a big issue. There has been a huge loss of forest over the last decades, but vast areas still remain, and their value is finally starting to be more widely recognised. Hunting for the captive bird trade also remains a huge threat, particularly to those species most desired as pets, such as songbirds and parrots. Local and international groups are working hard to try and reduce this trade, in particular the public demand, but there is still much work to be done to change attitudes.
How can the international community help to support conservation efforts?
As birdwatchers one of the simplest and best things you can do is to visit the region and go birdwatching! Coming here, spending time, spending money, staying in local hotels, eating local food, using local guides, all serves to create a value to the forests and the wildlife that lives in them. This is not lost on local people or the regional governments. Beyond that think carefully about the products you buy from the region, to make sure they come from sustainable and fair sources. If you have money invested make sure that is not going to support destructive or exploitative practices in the region. Finally, support a good cause! There are many, many local NGOs established and emerging in Indonesia and the wider region, all working and lobbying hard to protect the region’s forest and wildlife. Your support will help them achieve this.
The bird atlas movement that has swept the world in the last 40 years is surely one of the great recent achievements of citizen science.
More than 400 have been published since the 1970s and it is possible more people have been involved as volunteers than in any other form of biological data collection.
But it was not birders but botanists who pioneered the biological atlas, with the now familiar grid-based dot-maps. The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland’s Atlas of the British flora was a revelation when it appeared in 1962; half-a-century later American ornithologist Walter Ellison would describe it as the “great-grandfather of the hundreds of natural history grid-based atlases that were to follow in the next few decades as the atlas movement swept over the face of the Earth”.
The story is nicely told in C.D. Preston’s paper Following the BSBI’s lead: the influence of the Atlas of the British flora, 1962-2012. Planning had begun in 1950 and from the start it was intended to be a scientific exercise. The atlas in fact had little impact on science, which had to wait until computers that could analyse the amount of data atlases generate became widely available, but it did have an immediate impact on conservation – leading directly to the first British Red Data Book.
Speaking at the atlas’ launch, Max Nicholson, then head of the Nature Conservancy, described it as a great leap forward. And – we can imagine the great Twentieth Century conservationist had his tongue firmly in his cheek – suggested the ornithologists had been put to shame by the botanists.
Tony Norris, another of Britain’s conservation greats, responded when he and members of the West Midland Bird Club produced the Atlas of the Breeding Birds in the West Midlands in 1970.
The first grid-based bird atlas, modelled on the format pioneered by the botanists, covered the English counties of Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, and inspired the Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland, organised by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the Irish Wildbird Conservancy, published in 1976.
The 1976 bird atlas was followed by The Atlas of Wintering Birds in Britain and Ireland (1986), The New Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland (1994), and, bringing things right up to date, the Bird Atlas 2007-11: The Breeding and Wintering Birds of Britain and Ireland(2013). The fieldwork led to any number of county and regional atlases to various parts of Britain and Ireland – a recent post on the Devon Bird Atlas 2007-2013prompted this look at bird atlases.
Dawn Balmer, the BTO’s head of surveys, guesses at least 60,000 volunteers have contributed in Britain and Ireland alone over the last 40 years, 40,000 on the most recent atlas. Some take holidays in remote places in order to fill gaps, some make expedition-like trips to remote islands, some embark on marathon mountain bike journeys to record birds in inaccessible parts of the Scottish Highlands.
She said: “The atlas only gets finished because people do amazing things. Every time there is a new atlas you are engaging people in citizen science… it is quite addictive, people become atlas addicts.”
By the turn of the 21st Century there were also British atlases to butterflies, moths, bryophytes, reptiles and amphibians, spiders, dragonflies, molluscs, leeches and ticks. Freshwater fish followed soon after, and after that fleas, the latter the product of a 50-year labour by schoolteacher and wartime Spitfire pilot Bob George.
All stemmed from the Atlas of the British flora, which perceptive contemporary reviewers recognised had a significance beyond the British Isles.
Grid-based dot-maps were promoted by the European Ornithological Atlas Committee, formed in 1971 – the idea of using grid squares, for many years a solely military pre-occupation, had originally come from the Netherlands.
Bird atlases for France and Denmark appeared in 1976. The first American bird atlas, to Vermont, was published in 1985; by 1990 all the Atlantic coastal states from Maine to Virginia had completed fieldwork for bird atlases.
At the last count there were more than 400 national or regional bird atlases from nearly 50 countries, the majority in Europe and North America. There were fewer covering Africa and the Pacific, where all but one come from Australia, and only a handful from Asia, the Middle East and South America.
The original Atlas of the British flora contained another gift: it included pre-1930 records – not as far away in time then as it appears to be now – of uncommon species as open circles and contemporary records as black dots, making it immediately clear many species were in decline.
A standout feature of the 1994 New Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland was a huge reduction in the breeding range of farmland birds since fieldwork for the earlier atlases had been done. The 2013 atlas revealed upland birds and wading birds – according to Balmer the extent of the latter’s problems came as a particular shock – were under far more pressure than previously recognised.
“It is about the bigger picture and you only get that from having these large scale surveys periodically,” Balmer said. “It really helps you identify species which are showing the greatest change over time and it can highlight groups that are real conservation challenges.”