Tag Archives: Australian birds

Field Recording as a Respite from the News of the World


Road sign: high-brow artists contributing to Australia’s culture at the site of field recording

The temperature this weekend has been predicted to be the hottest on Australia’s record. Climate change is hard to ignore in a country that is experiencing hotter and longer summers, shorter winters, and catastrophic fire warnings for significant parts of the year.

The climate and other Unmentionables here and across the Pacific have created an uneasy beginning to 2017. We sit glued to a never-ending news cycle that has become overwhelming. It is as fascinating as it is shocking. A reprieve is needed …

… and so it was with a field recording trip to Tenterfield. I drove 2-hours west to hear one of my favourite natural sounds: the bell bird. Found in pockets of sclerophyll forest the bell bird’s measured 2-note chime provides a welcome reprieve from our daily routines and concerns.

It was 8:30 in the morning and the temperature was already 29°C when the first of the bell birds made themselves heard. There by the side of the road their call created the tranquility that I had been looking for. The act of listening provided a sense of peace and spatial awareness. Other concerns were stilled as the mind focussed on the auditory properties of the recording site.

2-hours later the temperature had risen to 41°C. I wondered about the effects of the heat on the local ecosystem. Would the forest be silenced over time?

Sound and Memory: field recordings and temporality

pied currawon gould 1848

The pied currawong, John Gould (1848).


The return of the liquid tones of pied-currawongs in the eucalyptus tree outside my kitchen window is a sound marking the change of seasons. Each year, as the cold teeth of winter lose their bite, the mornings are often punctuated by the sudden call of 15-20 currawongs. What I love about the currawongs is the way in which they appear from nowhere and, for a brief period, rule the the garden’s soundscape, only to disappear as quickly as they arrived.

What is it for something that endures to remain? (Ricoeur. 1984)

Listening to my archive of currawong recordings from previous years it is surprising how clearly the sound transports me back into the past. This experience is shared by many others.

Personal field recordings act as a portal to distant memories, triggering the ghosts of long forgotten thoughts and emotions. The process of recording sounds embeds subjective temporal memories within them. Upon subsequent listenings field recordings tunnel their way through our auditory system and unlock the resonance of the past. The dominant sound of the recorded object thus becomes secondary to the psychological layers present at the time of the recording. 

It has been a year since I last ventured outside to record the currawongs at a local creek. I remember being sick at the time, feeling the guilty pleasure of not going to work, realising that my illness had granted this tranquil moment.

Listening to the currawongs I am also reminded of an earlier walk through snake-infested waist-high grass in order to record the birds’ mercurial calls in a small grove of trees. It was windy that day and I imagined the sound of snakes with the movement of each stalk of grass swaying in the breeze.

And this recording? It too will capture something of the essence of today, the experiences of this present moment to be unfastened in some distant future.

The MoKS Residency: last post from Australia, 2013.

It is often said that the anticipation of a holiday is more beneficial than travel itself. We escape the difficulties of work by dreaming of the future, the prospect of a journey keeping us buoyant throughout the year.

With my 4 week residency in Estonia drawing closer my mind is filled with predictions of the unfamiliar sounds that will surround me there. Among other things I especially hope to be able to record the sounds of snow and ice, something not available in this Australian sub-tropical climate.

But what of the sounds that I will, albeit temporarily, leave behind? As we approach the Australian summer there are a number of animals whose calls signal the arrival of this hot and humid season.

Below are a few of the regular sounds that mark this season in this sub-tropical region. The illustrations of the birds were painted by John Gould, a British ornithologist who identified 328 new species during his time in Australia from 1838-1840:

Kookaburras at dawn, nature’s alarm clock. The call of the Kookaburra is an interesting example of the cultural nature of listening. Where Australians hear the Kookaburra’s call as a joyful laugh, visitors to Australian hear the screaming of monkeys:

Masked-lapwings, more commonly known as Spur-winged Plovers. These birds lay their eggs on the ground and viciously swoop anyone remotely walking in their vicinity. This recording is of a plover couple attacking me as I walked along my driveway:

Magpies in the morning. Early colonialists accused Australian birds of not having a musical voice, yet the vocalisation of the magpie contests this early claim:

bladder cicada
Bladder Cicadas calling from the trees at twilight. These cicadas are so loud that they are painful to the ear. They are as impressive as they are irritating:
I’m looking forward to listening to the “Old World”. For me it will be “the shock of the new”.

The next post will be from Venice, Italy. Till then …

The Annual Cuckoo Migration: channel-billed cuckoos and koels

Each spring the Channel-billed Cuckoo and the Common Koel fly from their homes in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia to mate in the sub-tropical region of Australia. The arrival of their distinctive calls marks the passing of another year.

The Channel-billed Cuckoo
The Channel-billed Cuckoo is the world’s largest parasitic bird, its wingspan measuring up to 1 metre. The cuckoo is devious in the way it uses other bird species to rear its chicks – by working in pairs the male cuckoo provokes host-birds into chasing it while the female cuckoo slips into the host-nest to lay its eggs. For several months the east coast region is filled with pterodactyl-like calls as the cuckoos apply this breeding strategy. Once the chick hatches it is unwittingly fed by the host-bird until it is strong enough to fly north to Papua New Guinea.

The Common Koel
In contrast to the raucous call of the Channel-billed Cuckoo the Common Koel adds a mournful tone to the soundscape. Folklore states that the arrival of the Koel signals the beginning of the rainy season. In the recording below small drops of rain fall in the background:

The Koel can be heard calling for hours throughout the day and night. Its breeding strategy is similar to the Channel-billed Cuckoo. Once the chick hatches it kicks out other hatchlings and eggs from the nest and is raised by the host-bird before it flies to its Indonesian homeland.

The annual migration of these extremely vocal birds marks the calendar in a way that other events throughout the year do not. This is yet another example of the way in which sound reflects the passage of time.

Silence, Colonisation, and the Australian Soundscape

A Butcher Bird sings to her chick while sheltering from the rain. The calls of Australian birds were once regarded as inferior to those in Europe.
When Australia was first colonised in 1788 its soundscape was completely alien to the foreign British ear. The vibrant sounds of the tropical wilderness and desert areas were listened to with colonial disdain. The native Australian soundscape was marginalised and regarded as inferior, much like the attitude towards Australia’s indigenous inhabitants. This process of marginalisation was later described with terms such as The Great Australian Silence and The Great Australian Emptiness. In post-colonial studies this notion of silence is seen to have aided in legitimising the colonisation of Aboriginal land, a space which had been occupied for over 40,000 years.

As the colonial territory expanded the 500 Aboriginal language groups that had existed prior to 1788 were systematically silenced. English was imposed as the dominant language and along with it the cultural system in which to interpret the world. The introduction of reading and writing further devalued the Aboriginal cultures’ aural interpretations of the Australian landscape; western society favouring the visual sense above all others. Today only 250 Aboriginal languages remain. This silencing has resulted in the loss of indigenous knowledge and ways of listening to the environment throughout Australia.

During the late 19th century Australian nationalists attempted to forge a cultural identity seperate from Britain, however there was still an inability to acknowledge Australia’s unique acoustic space. This was exemplified by one of the leading literary nationalists, Adam Lindsay Gordon, describing Australia’s birds as songless.

Soundscape: Bird House.

It is now 223 years since colonisation. Has our ability to listen to the sounds specific to our environment improved, do we still hear the great silence? Reynolds argues that the silence has been broken by Aboriginal people speaking in public soundscapes, and by our developing willingness to hear, articulate and confront the unspeakable of our history.

Indeed the Australian film and tv industries now make great use of the local soundscape, and contemporary composers have attempted to interpret the calls of native animals in their compositions. After 223 years post-colonial Australia finally seems to be entering a period in which we recognise our sonic identity, our soundmarks. Perhaps this growing awareness will also benefit the acoustic spaces in which we live.

Hearing Australian Identity by Ros Bandt
The Great Australian Silence by Jane Belfrage

Cockatoos, a return visit – 2’00”

A few weeks ago a flock of yellow-tailed black cockatoos spent an afternoon in our garden. Recently two more cockatoos dropped by, this time being much more intent on communicating with each other than on food.

The relentless call of the dominant cockatoo suggests it might have been trying to mate with the other, though it’s hard to imagine anything being seduced by this sound!