Listen the birds: phonographs and twitchers

Meeting with the wardens, scientists and volunteers involved in maintaining the Winnall Moors reserve, I have noticed how conversations are often interrupted by an almost involuntary vocal twitch, as the name of a bird calling in the distance is announced: ‘Nuthatch!’ It is as if they possess a third ear, always listening out for bird song and especially tuned into the unusual songs of migratory visitors.
Such a song arrived in the moors this spring, causing many a conversation to be punctuated by: ‘Grasshopper Warbler’. This Warbler migrates from West Africa and Senegal (for only the 2nd time in 95 years, a bird ringed in Hampshire was caught in Senegal in 2007: source).  This “most artful creature, skulking in the thickest part of a bush”, (according to Gilbert White in 1768) is a rare visitor to the moors and notoriously difficult to see. Its company most commonly announced by the unique song, it is an acoustic presence rather than a visual one. Its method of singing, turning its head from side to side, gives a ventriloquial effect, which makes it almost impossible to place where the song is coming from.
Another problem occurs when you are listening out for this sound, but unsure as to how the actual song, sounds. Obviously the name suggests a song reminiscent of an insect, rather than a bird, but translating the sound into language has resulted in various descriptions from mill wheels and spinning wheels to ‘the mechanical sound made by an anglers reel’ (RSPB Handbook of British Birds). People attempted to imitate the sound for me, in a form of non-verbal ventriloquism, but to be honest they were not very convincing.
I had already recorded a really high pitch continuous trill around the pond and at the top of the moors, but didn’t know what it was, for me it was closer to the early electronic music by Kraftwerk and Stockhausen, or the pure and brutally minimal tonal sonics of contemporary German composer and sound artist Carsten Nicolai.
On a lovely early summer evening I made several recordings of the sound from the boardwalk over the reed beds. Although reminiscent of a grasshopper in its form, the tone was much higher. In a moment of wonderful synchronicity, my habitual digital twitch through the vinyl records of the local Oxfam shop, unearthed an old 7” record. Migrating to Britain from the European Phono Club of Amsterdam, Hoor de vogels No.3 (or Listen the birds No.3) was recorded in the 1960’s by Hans A. Traber, and the last track on side two was a recording of the ‘sustained reeling’ and prolonged phrases of the Grasshopper Warbler. Through 33 1/3 revolutions per-minute and the surface noise of the vinyl record, the singing ghost of a Grasshopper Warbler appeared and I felt confident that my recording had found one of its ancestors.
The phonograph was the first technology to separate sound from the place and moment of utterance, simultaneously holding and sustaining that voice forever, or at least until the recording medium became obsolete.
My own recording of this migrating voice rests on my hard drive, backed up with RAID in case of digital collapse. But of course, with progress, eventually this technology will become outdated and fall silent.
The Grasshopper Warbler population is in decline and it has been given the highest (Red) conversation status by the RSPB. Perhaps one day all that will remain of its voice will be records we cannot hear.

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One Response to Listen the birds: phonographs and twitchers

  1. that’s a wren singing over the top, living up to its reputation for singing loudly. you have to listen very carefully to hear the grasshopper warbler reeling in the wren interludes.

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