Thursday, 1 March 2018

Listening in the darkness: New adventures in nocmigging

It's been a while since I did one of these and, since I'm now living in Pulborough, I thought I'd get a new blog up and running for occasional updates on my birding in this area.

I'm loving living here so far: the new garden list is already on 101 (Temminck's Stint the latest addition, ridiculously!) and my overall Pulborough patch list is 135 (though this includes some historical ticks such as American Wigeon, Little Gull and White-fronted Goose - still no sign of the latter this winter, sadly).

The short days of winter are always hard going for any birder in full time employment and, although I'm lucky enough to work outdoors, in terms of patch birding, it's been a weekend only affair for me for the past four months. In an effort to remedy this somewhat and because I like trying new things, I've recently decided to get into 'nocmigging'. As migration is an aspect of bird study I've found particularly fascinating for some time now, I've been following a few nocturnal recorders' efforts with intrigue. Essentially, for those unfamiliar with this unusual new way of birding, it involves setting up a microphone and recording device outside overnight then analysing the spectrogram of the recording to see what bird calls were captured. With the Brooks and the River Arun now literally on my doorstep, what better way, I thought, to unlock the secrets of what flies over in the middle of the night? Judging by the results from other nocturnal recording stations around the country - the likes of Snow Bunting, Common Scoter and, famously, Ortolan Bunting, being identified flying over in the middle of the night - the answer is a hell of a lot!

Not wanting to spend a fortune on something I knew I was just testing the water at to begin with I started with a very basic set up which only cost £40 or so and produced some reasonable results. Once I was convinced this was something I wanted to do more regularly and get better recordings from, I levelled up to a HTDZ HT-81 microphone and Tascam DR-05 recorder - the same set-up recommended by Joe Stockwell in his excellent set of instructional videos - which, in total still only comes to around £120. For analysing the recording I use Audacity which is available as a free download. Again, see Joe's videos for a bit of tuition on how to use this.

So, let's cut to the chase and talk about some of the things I've recorded so far - some more expected than others. I was a little late starting in late autumn to experience the peak of thrush migration but nonetheless recorded decent numbers of Redwing and Song Thrush over in late November and early December. One thing I'm finding already is you quite quickly begin to get your eye in for what's an interesting call, and even start to recognise certain species' calls just from the shape on the spectrogram. Here's a Redwing, for example, with its distinctive downward slanting wedge-shaped 'seeep' call:


And here's a Song Thrush with its staccato spike 'tsip!':

Song Thrush (the lower pitch calls just after each thrush call is a Greylag Goose)

Here's a Common Snipe from 29th November - sounded like it almost took the top off the microphone it was so low!


Just the other week it was good to get my first Coot - a bit of a blue riband species for nocmiggers, and surprisingly scarce locally I've found, despite the Arun and the Brooks being so close to home.


With the Arun Valley being a well-known wintering ground for a small number of Bewick's Swans, this was one I quietly hoped I might pick up on my recordings. Sure enough, on 19th January, it happened! Sadly this was when I was still getting to grips with my new recording set-up so the sound quality is not very good, but you get the idea.
Bewick's Swan

Less expected was this single Brent Goose which called a couple of times at 23:40hrs on 10th January.

Brent Goose

Other than that, so far it's mostly been the general background hubbub from the Brooks such as Lapwing, Wigeon and Canada Goose, with the odd Tawny Owl, Little Owl and local dog thrown in for good measure.

The first real curveball came on 7th February though when I recorded this single, somewhat puzzling call at 06:08hrs.

My first thought was Snow Bunting, even though it didn't sound quite right. Others on Twitter suggested Lapland or Skylark. Simon Gillings from the BTO provided some valuable input, even going to the trouble of producing these comparison images of various species' spectrograms.
My mystery call/Snow Bunting/Lapland Bunting, for comparison. As Simon has suggested,
the shape of my call doesn't seem right for either, although this could be due in part to the distance
of the bird from the microphone 

Ultimately, he said he's not entirely sure it's Lapland or Snow Bunting; he did suggest possibly Bullfinch but neither of us are sure that's quite right either. One that got away I suppose, but an enticing taster for what's to come as spring approaches - I can almost hear the Whimbrel calling in my headphones as I type this!


  1. Nice blog! What is your favorite bird in this area?

  2. Any suggestions on microphones I can put on my phone in combination with a bird sound recording app?