Recording the Elusive Sounds of Black Grouse

Intro by Thomas Rex Beverly

During January, I had a contest for a chance to win my Complete Bundle. To enter, you had to share your best field recording story. I received some hilarious and wonderful submission and will be sharing a few of them in upcoming blog posts. However, my favorite story was from Brendan Rehill and his fabulous story of recording the elusive Black Grouse. He won the contest and I’m thrilled to share his story!

The Winning Story

by Brendan Rehill

My field recording story took place May 2017 when I got the chance to go on a Wildeye workshop in Sweden run by Chris Watson and Jez Riley French. At the beginning of the week, Chris had identified some of the more geographically unique bird species that were in Sweden at that season, one of which was the black grouse. To locate this bird, you had to locate a patch of grass the grouse had flattened out, forming a little gladiatorial arena known as a ‘lek’, that the males would then display and fight in to attract a mate.

No luck had been had all week until we got word from a local ornithologist of an unused army shooting range that he had seen many grouse at. The plan was then formed to recce the site, plant our mics, run cables back 100m, and return that night to be ready to record for the dawn display. After a decent job camouflaging the mics and marking out the end of our cable run, we returned to base for some sleep.

At 2AM we piled into the van to drive back to the site before the birds appeared, as they are easily spooked. It was a clear night with a bright full moon, and around 1°C out. On arrival, we were surprised to find the grouse had already started appearing. Chris and myself quietly exited the van and began to sneak across the field to where our cables were, to hook up the recorders. That moment in particular remains with me; crouching alongside a field recordist whose work I greatly admire, in the dead of night, to record a very special activity in these birds’ lives.

After leaving some headroom on my preamp and crossing my fingers that I had gained correctly for the unexpected, we got back into the van to begin a 4 hour sit in the cold as the grouse began their performance. Some stories were shared and regular checking of the grouse-y proceedings through binoculars were had to pass the time. At one moment, we all froze like statues as a hare casually galloped by outside the van, bigger than a cat in stature with its large hind legs lifting it along.

Eventually, shades of orange appeared in the tree line as the sun rose and the grouse began to disperse. We ventured out again, with stiff limbs, to get our recorders. I was nervous that the cold might have killed my digital recorder as I was running on AA batteries, but the LEDs were still blinking away when I got to my bag. The other concern I’d had was if any of the action had actually occurred near my mic, as the grouse had spread out along an unexpectedly wide area. I plugged in my headphones and skipped to an hour in, only to hear the most fascinating, bubbling, undulating sound of gathered grouse calling, as pairs of males flapped aggressively and rushed at each other. We plugged my recorder into the van stereo to listen to on the drive back to base, my head swimming with disbelief at the luck I’d had and the memorable experience it had been.

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