Andrew Skeoch

author - naturalist - wildlife sound recordist


to Deep Listening to Nature

Notes and References

Supplementary chapter:
The Evolution of Rhythm

Book cover image © Lachlan Read.

The cover species to this book - the Southern Scrub-robin. Its strong whistled song phrases are heard in the foreground, along with a dawn chorus of Superb Fairy-wrens, Jacky Winter, New Holland Honeyeater, Mistletoebird, Australian Magpies and Eastern Banjo Frogs. Little Desert, western Victoria.
The combined effect of their songs is ethereal... Hearing not only the beauty of my mystery species, but this blending of birdsong born of the land, I feel unexpectedly moved. Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater dawn chorus, with distant Magpies, Corellas, Grey Shrike-thrush, Peaceful Doves and an Emu drumming (Mutawintji, NSW)
Zebra Finches ... are known by Western Desert Aborigines as 'nyi-nyi's, a fair approximation of their call. (Mt. Connor, NT)
The Indigenous name 'currawong' has been applied to the entire Strepera genus, yet only one of its member species, the Pied Currawong, gives that evocative cry. (Wollemi NP, NSW)
...they became children rapt in fascination, listening to the sharp clicks of marine shrimp for the first time. (Underwater recording from Port Phillip Bay, Melbourne, Vic)
... the continual sound of panting and low grunting, of bones being crushed and sinews torn. (Ruaha NP, Tanzania)
... with necks outstretched and bodies taught, they heaved out each breath, creating a huge, guttural sound. (Ruaha NP, Tanzania)
Our Mutawintji recording project resulted in a music album, Rockpool Reflections, with myself playing my compositions on a renaissance lute. This is a solo piece: The Echidna's Wanderings.
...and another track, From Afar, with David Brown accompanying me on shakuhachi, and backed by the singing of Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters.
Canyon Wrens ... use rockwalls and overhangs to amplify their voices, and no hearing of them would be authentic without that canyon reverberance. (Calf Creek Canyon, Utah)
Personally, I've come to enjoy harsh and grating birdcalls, as they frequently embody character – the raspy, querulous calls of Apostlebirds are a delightful example. (Nombini Nature Reserve, NSW)
White-eared Honeyeaters ... give quick, two-note calls with a 'choppy' quality. (Sandon, Vic)
The call of the Pallid Cuckoo ... could be thought of ... as belonging to the 'brainfever bird'. (On a windy morning, Sandon Vic)
... he was referring to the 'whipcrack' of the Eastern Whipbird. (The male Whipbird gives the whipcrack, the female immediately responding with her "ch,ch,chew". You can also hear 'fizzing' White-naped Honeyeaters, King Parrots and Bassian Thrush. Waratah Flat, Vic)
Grasshopper Warblers are named for their insect-like songs (with a loud Chaffinch in the foreground. Northumberland, UK)
several species of Asian green fruit pigeon give delightful, soft whistles that are completely un-pigeon-like (Their 'grinding' calls are also unusual for pigeon. Pompadour Green Pigeon, Cotigaon NP, Goa, India)
the drumming of small woodpeckers can resemble a door creaking (Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Sunabeda Wildlife Reserve, Orissa, India)
...a Buff-breasted Coucal – a large cuckoo – half growling, half hissing from the canopy. (About 30secs in, it changes to a deep booming call. Kolombangara Is, Solomon Islands)
For woodpeckers, the rate and intensity of drumming is characteristic of each species. (with Hairy Woodpecker, Red-breasted Sapsucker, White-headed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker and Northern Flicker. Grant Sequoia Grove, King's Canyon National Park, California)
... the vibration of tail feathers (in the swooping display flight) of the Common Snipe. (Drevdagen, Sweden)
...the Scarlet Robin's song consists of a pattern of rippling sounds strung together like beads on a string. (Sandon, Vic)
... the Horsefield's Bronze-cuckoo. For such a tiny bird, its voice is surprisingly strong. (Sandon, Vic)
All the while, they utter between them an insistent tinkling chatter: pinka-pinka-pink. These are Buff-rumped Thornbills... (Sandon, Vic)
Watching closely, we see one bird following another, its bill opening slightly to utter zzzzt, zzzzt every few seconds. Its somewhat plainer plumage markings identify it as a young one, and this insect-like sound is a juvenile buff-rump's begging call. (Mono iPhone recording, Sandon, Vic)
... and looking up into the canopy spy a mob of Varied Sitellas. (Sandon, Vic)
As another Grey Fantail appears, these 'sneezes' become more frequent, accelerating to tip into a delightful cascade of silvery whistles – a mini-carillon of tiny bells (with Weebills and Scarlet Robin, among other species, Sandon, Vic)
... a Common Bronzewing pigeon, some distance off, but exactly where is difficult to determine. (Sandon, Vic)
The juvenile in the group is particularly un-ignorable, continually giving calls which can be described as infinite variations on a thin scream. (Foraging White-winged Choughs, Sandon, Vic)
... to hear a dozen choughs uttering these glissandi of sliding tones is one of the most attractive sounds of the Australian bush. (Chough's 'Yellow alarm', note the bill clicking, Sandon, Vic)
... a group of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos fly past, white against the blue sky, screeching to each other on the wing. (Sandon, Vic)
... a droll, mournful sigh which is so emotive that it's difficult not to smile. (Australian Ravens, Sandon, Vic)
These birds are simply happy, contentedly twittering to each other in close proximity. All is right in their world. (Family of Superb Fairy-wrens, Sandon, Vic)
... Scarlet Robins ... emitting an irregular stream of ticks and rattles that one would be struggling to hear much more than twenty metres away. (Sandon, Vic)
... it is easy to understand why the carolling of Australia's magpies is so admired. (Note wingbeats at beginning, Sandon, Vic)
... often being the only component of their song audible from a distance. (Sandon, Vic)
... their pleasant warbling sometimes concluding with a rising, rawking inflection that hits your ears like a whiplash. (An inland Magpie, near Kingoonya, SA)
... a distinct nocturnal repertoire, given in a soft and introspective voice as though singing to themselves. (With early rising White-winged Fairy-wrens in background, near Birdsville, SA)
... the voices of Gang Gang Cockatoos sounded like creaking branches as they took lazy wing overhead... (East Gippsland, Vic)
... whistlers sang like audible sunshine, and honeyeaters chipped and twittered in gregarious abundance. (Dawn chorus with Golden Whistler, Eastern Yellow Robin and White-naped Honeyeaters, Waratah Flat, East Gippsland, Vic)
The forest was being shredded... (Waratah Flat)
The birdsong we were documenting was full of character – the cries of Black-cockatoos... (Errinundra NP, Vic)
... that exhilarating call signalled its leap into the air, and indicated its descending glide between the trees, terminating as the animal landed a little further away. (A Yellow-bellied Glider in its growly flight, with Boobook Owls in the background, Waratah Flat)
We'd just been privileged to overhear a pair of Sooty Owls sharing their tender nuptial song. (Ellery Ck, Vic)
On one of these recordings, a (Torresian Crow) did something unexpected... (nr Umawa, SA)
My growing appreciation was strengthened when a fervent but rather unmusical rendition of the predawn call to prayer was broadcast across the landscape from a nearby village. (nr Huttusa, Turkey)
... this (Nightingale) really was playing with sound. (nr Huttusa, Turkey)
During the day, a pair of (Pied Butcherbirds) will sing together, one beginning a phrase and the other completing it... (Sundown NP, Qld)
a (Pied Butcherbird) singing in the cathedral ambience of Ormiston Gorge in the Western MacDonnell Ranges...
...having inspired several musicians to compose their own responses. ('In the Night', composed by Simone Slattery and Anthony Albrecht as part of their musical project inspired by the book by Tim Low; Where Song Began)
Taking a long recording of one bird from the Eastern MacDonnell Ranges near Alice Springs, I set to exploring these questions.

I began by notating his repertoire, finding this individual bird had eight melodic phrases (spectrograms A-H left, with sequence of phrases in time flowing left to right). Some of them seemed to be the basis for frequent improvisation (orange dots) while others were never ornamented. It turned out that one phrase, what I came to think of as his 'home phrase' (D), was repeated quite often, while others were less so. Curiously, one phrase (H) was only sung a single time and not repeated. However when I came to examining the sequencing, I could not identify any pattern at all.

Now I focused on only these four motifs (coloured elements), counting the two phrases made from them as variations of the one utterance. After re-analysing (the same sequence), I sat back with a smile. ...the pattern was clear and obvious. Not totally predictable, but enough that it was undeniably intentional.

... a Pied Butcherbird whose repertoire was limited to only a few phrases, with no common motifs and very little ornamentation. He sounded sonorous, but didn't play much with his song structure. (Mandu Gorge, WA)
One of the earliest recordings I made of a Superb Fairy-wren was of a male on a clear, spring morning. (Kangaroo Ground, Vic)

Using spectrogram software, which renders sound into a visual representation, I analysed one of the songs and was struck by the complexity of the sonic structure. What sounded to me as a pleasing jumble of twitters was incredibly acoustically detailed. I could see it comprised a dense series of whistled elements, delivered so quickly that they coalesced to my ear as an undifferentiated tumble of high frequency sound.

It felt to me that what I'd uncovered was not the brief snatch of song lyric I'd expected, but a whole poem. (Song phrase 1, slowed and pitched down down 3 octaves)

Song phrases 2 and 3. Compare to the one above.

Sonic snowflakes – there were no two alike. (Song phrase 3, slowed)
... near a twisted bloodwood tree ... the wind thrashing its branches with only a few plucky honeyeaters chipping briefly to signify a dawn chorus. (Kata Tjuta, NT)
To my surprise, here was a whole soundscape I'd been unaware of. (Valley of the Winds, Kata Tjuta, NT)
... dawn birdsong in the garden of the Blue Mosque (with Sparrows, Jackdaws, Laughing Doves, Chiffchaff, plus Gulls calls drfiting from the nearby Bosphoros, Istanbul, Turkey
... the songs of Blackbirds, Goldfinches and Sardinian Warblers were a peaceful contrast to the horrors of the trenches nearly a hundred years previously. (Gallipoli, Turkey)
At the ruined citadel of Termessos, Jays hopped among the fallen masonry...
... and Rüppell's Warblers called out across the precipitous mountainsides which had once made the city impregnable. (Termessos, Turkey)
... the dawnsongs of larks drifting across fields near the remains of Hattusa, the capital of the Hittite empire around 1500 B.C.
In the Taurus Mountains, birdsong mingled with the klinking of traditional sheepbells... (Demerkezik, Turkey)
... the soft cooing and slapping wings of Feral Pigeons reverberated within the roofless shell of the thousand year old Ösk Monastery.
Frequently I'd observe a songbird perched high in a tree, often at the very top, pouring forth a complex repertoire. (Song Thrush, near Savsat, Turkey
... these pleasing patterns were absent, replaced by what seemed to be a dense and undifferentiated twittering. (My first European dawn chorus, Kazdagi, Turkey)
... a single Thrush Nightingale singing at 2 a.m. in a Finnish woodland, its complex phrases emerging from the depths of the half light. (courtesy of Geoff Sample, recorded at 2am, 5th June 2002 at Sikkalahti, Finland. Geoff notes that this performance is unusual in the almost continuous delivery, rather than in discrete strophes with intervals between.)
... the songs of a whole community of Tawny-crowned Honeyeaters combining together in an intricate harmony. (Little Desert, Vic)
In the outback, it could be the sweet, down-slurred whistles of Chestnut-rumped Thornbills. (Annuello NR, Vic)
In the rainforests of far north Queensland, it was the loud, chopping, percussive vocalising of appropriately named Chowchillas. (Atherton Tableland, Qld)
In our southeastern forests, the constant 'pings' of Bell Miners create a unique sonic effect. (Merimbula, NSW)
... and almost everywhere across the continent, various species of honeyeaters give Australian dawn choruses a sweet coherence. (Singing Honeyeaters at dawn, nr Mungerani, SA)
Rufous Whistlers ... are effusive and accomplished singers in the warmer months. (Kilmore, Vic)
Brown Honeyeaters ... Australia's Nightingales. (Qualing Pool, WA)
If one listens attentively, one will occasionally hear smaller species also giving complex songs, often including tidbits of very adept mimicry (This is a lovely sequence of song including mimicry from a Silvereye. Mimicked species include Sacred Kingfisher (0.01, 0.16-0.20, 2.06, 2.27), Willie Wagtail (0.14, 1.41), Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike (0.54, 1.15, 1.31) and a reasonable representation of a (far larger) Grey Currawong (2.31). This was recorded on my phone, I wish I'd had my good microphones with me.)
The whole performance is a synchronised event. (Laughing Kookaburras, Sandon, Vic)
White-browed Babblers ... chattering, scolding, wheezing and whistling to each other as they forage on the ground or chase each other around low shrubs. (They do love using my microphone stand as a perch. Sandon, Vic)
... all the while giving soft, mewing calls. It's quite a dramatic show. (White-winged Choughs giving 'goggling' display. Sandon, Vic
The squawks of indignation that accompany these missteps are as though accusing a tree of unreliability. (White-winged Choughs as a branch breaks under one of them. Wollemi NP, NSW)
At Mutawintji I was recording White-winged Fairy-wrens at around 3 a.m.
... we have to habituate ourselves to sleep through their wee-hour festivities. (Superb Fairy-wrens singing predawn. Sandon, Vic)
As soon as he starts, from nearby comes a supportive trill. This is the female, her brown plumage similarly puffed in exertion. (Superb Fairy-wrens, male and female singing. Sandon, Vic)
In the stillness of the desert night in inland Australia, the calls of Emus carry for great distances over the plains. (Mutawintji, NSW.) (This may be inaudably low frequency if playing back on a phone for instance)
(The female Emu) is the one who gives those booming notes. (Hattah, Vic)
... White-throated Laughingthrushes, foraging together on the forest floor and keeping up a constant chatter... (Helambu province, central Himalayas, Nepal)
In Thailand, White-crested Laughingthrushes join in making a cackling ruckus which resonates through the rainforest. (Khao Yai NP, Thailand)
In East Africa ... Spotted Morning Thrushes ... bring the vocal duet to a sublime art. (Tarangire NP, Tanzania)
European Goldfinch, bringing its inheritance of elaborate song and preference for high perches to a new home in the antipodean bushland. (Glenelg River, Vic)
The nocturnal singing of these White-capped Monarchs remains one of the most aesthetically pleasing nature sounds I've ever documented. (Tetepare Island, Solomon Islands)
As their name suggests, Golden Whistlers have a beautiful voice, very sweet and rich, which I knew well. (Australian Golden Whistlers, Pachycephala pectoralis. Ellery Creek, East Gippsland, Vic)
... the night was alive with nocturnal sounds; a susurration of crickets and the sharp peeps of tiny frogs which seemed to be everywhere on the forest floor. (Elegant Sticky-toed Frogs. Kolombangara Island, Solomon Islands)
Again it came, wild and exuberant. It was a bird, but I'd never heard anything like it. (Kolombangara Island, Solomon Islands)
The repetitive song of the Chirruping Wedgebill ... were reasonably common in the open scrublands around Mutawintji. (nr Broken Hill, NSW)
Cascading over and over in a descending series of silvery notes, the effect of (the Chiming Wedgebill's) song is utterly delightful.(Mulga Park Rd, SA)
This place was vibrant – so much for not being exceptional. (Mulga Park Rd, SA)
Identical twins to the eye, but to the ear, a whole different beast. (Willow Warbler (first song) and Chiffchaff. Ennerdale Water, Cumbria, UK)
Songs of: Pink Robin (East Gippsland, Vic)
... Flame Robin (East Gippsland, Vic)
... Scarlet Robin, (Sandon, Vic)
... Red-capped Robin (Central Australia)
A series of acrobatic song phrases poured out, one after the other into the sunny morning... They really are the most wonderful songsters. (Rufous Whistler, Sandon, Vic - compare with... )
(Rufous Whistlers) are common among the paperbarks that line the billabongs. (Kakadu NP, NT)
Rufous and Golden Whistlers have converged on similar sounds appropriate to the environments they both share. (Golden Whistler in Sandon woodlands - compare with our local Rufous Whistlers)
... with a loud whipcracking call, I was immediately transported back to Kolombangara. (Regent Whistlers in the dawn chorus. Astrapia Camp, PNG)
I was hearing a Regent Whistler, Pachycephala schlegelii (Astrapia Camp, PNG)
Walking our bush track, I heard one of our Scarlet Robins singing a song variation. (Scarlet Robin, autumn song variation. Sandon, Vic)
with a throat-clearing cluck, he was into the skilled mimicry for which his species is renowned, stringing together impersonations of one species after another. (Mimicry of the Superb Lyrebird: Kookaburra, Pied Currawong, tree creaking, Brown Thornbill, Whipbird (with female response), White-browed Scrubwren, Pied Currawong (again), Yellow-tailed Black-cockatoo, Red Wattlebird (including bill clicks), Crimson Rosella, and finally, its own species' song.)
In that rainforest gully on an overcast day, their voices carrying in the cool air, it felt instinctively right. (Superb Lyrebird display, Myrtle Gully, Vic)
Even Myrtle Gully itself feels like a place out of time. (Winter soundscape with Lyrebirds, Striated Thornbills and Spotted Pardalotes, Myrtle Gully, Vic)
... our local Sulphur-crested Cockatoos and Little Corellas wheel across the evening sky in loose mobs... (Loddon River, Vic)
As (Budgerigars) collectively take to the air, they do so with an explosive rush of whirring wings and twittering calls. (N'Dalla Gorge, NT)
Adolescent songbirds can occasionally be overheard polishing their act in a delightful practice known as subsong - Grey Shrike-thrush against a backdrop of cicadas... (Sandon, Vic)
... Pied Butcherbird on a windy afternoon... (Uluru NP, NT)
... Mistletoebird almost inaudible against the wind. (Mulga Park Rd, SA)
Albert's Lyrebirds are similarly skilful mimics... (Lamington NP, Qld)
Rufous Scrub-birds are also extraordinarily loud. I've ... risked my hearing trying to get a glimpse of one skulking in the undergrowth. (Lamington NP, Qld)
...the appropriately named Noisy Scrub-bird, lives in coastal heathland where its voice contends effectively with the ever-present roar of surf. (Two Peoples Bay NR, WA)
Logrunners ... are also piercingly loud... (Border Ranges NP, Qld) are the Pilotbirds, a favourite mimicry subject for Superb Lyrebirds. (Errinundra NP, Vic)
...the bristlebirds, several populations of which are also coastal heath dwellers. (Rufous Bristlebird, male and female duet, Discovery Bay, Vic) be ear-slapped by the piping of a treecreeper nearby. (White-throated Treecreeper, Sandon, Vic)
...nearly a quarter (of Australia's passerines) are known to mimic other species as part of their adult repertoire. Magpies are well-known and versatile at doing so. (Magpie imitating a wild horse. Birdsville Track, SA)
Redthroats of arid scrublands are remarkable mimics (Redthroat imitating a White-plumed Honeyeater. Weetootla Gorge, Flinders Ranges, SA)
Olive-backed Orioles frequently imitate woodswallow species... (Olive-backed Oriole song, with mimicry of: Grey Butcherbird, Lorikeet, Eastern Rosella, White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike, Grey Shrike-thrush and White-browed Woodswallow. Gunoo NP, NSW)
I've heard ... Silvereyes mimicking Jacky Winters. (Silvereye song with mimicry of a Jacky Winter (@ 32 secs). Sandon, Vic)
A Western Bowerbird suddenly began imitating not one but two raptor species – a Brown Falcon and Whistling Kite – in an attempt to scare me off. (Illamurta Springs, NT)
The Noisy Miner is well-known to urban dwellers in the east for its high-pitched chorusing of insistent wee, wee, wee, wee... (Mobbing calls, Sundown NP, Qld)
Bell Miners have taken this sonic strategy, and ratcheted it up another notch. (This is their dawn calling sound, different to their daytime calls - here you can hear the kinship with other Miner species. Yarra Valley, Vic) in colonies, Bell Miners create a sonic exclusion zone around their patch of forest. (The well-known daytime call, after which they're named. Mimosa Rocks NP, NSW)
...a sudden, deep booming ... halted me in my tracks. (White-bellied Imperial Pigeon, Lore Lindu NP, Sulawesi)

Comparing a diversity of species from large to small, and plotting their body size vs lowest vocal frequencies on a graph, results in an ascending baseline that unites them all. (Graph includes species featured in the book, both songbirds and non-songbirds, including (from right) Australian Raven, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, Grey Shrike-thrush, Rufous Whistler, Yellow Robin, Scarlet Robin, Brown-headed Honeyeater, Spotted Pardalote and Superb Fairy-wren)

The dainty Peaceful Doves in our bushland... (Warby Ranges NP, Vic)
...and the diminutive Namaqua Doves of eastern Africa, are among the smallest (members of the pigeon and dove family). (Soft, single note calls. Tarangire NP, Tanzania)

...adding pigeons to our graph of body sizes vs vocalisations results in another neat baseline, paralleling other birds but at a lower frequency. (The Imperial Pigeon falls off the bottom of my graph) of the rarest and most cryptic species of our woodlands is around – Painted Button-quail. (Sandon, Vic)
(Nightjars will) often call at night with vocalisations highly distinctive of their species. (Spotted Nightjar, nr Umawa, SA)
However, both in the Australian outback... (Spotted Nightjar, hawking calls in flight, nr Umawa, SA)
...and the teak forests of India, I've heard nightjar species making another type of sound. (Indian Nightjar, hawking calls in flight, Nagzira Wildlife Reserve, Maharashtra, India)
I encountered another endemic species to Sulawesi, the Piping Crow, and delighted in their sing-song musical cries – so unusual for a corvid. (Lore Lindu NP, Sulawesi)
The warm-toned whooping of Bay Coucals drifted between the trees. (Lore Lindu NP, Sulawesi)
...a pair of Knobbed Hornbills aerobraked into the canopy with whistling wings, honking noisily as they commenced feeding on figs. (Lore Lindu NP, Sulawesi)
...a caravan of gaily-decorated donkeys came down the path... with bells jingling around their necks ... laden with produce for market and accompanied by a group of young villagers ("Selamat pagi" (good morning) - Tomado village, Lore Lindu NP, Sulawesi)
The song of the Regent Honeyeater is quiet and lyrical ... a song that reflects the bird's personality. (Chiltern NP, Vic)
A million tiny insects chimed, trilled, zizzed and chirruped in a pulsing cloak of sound. (Cricket and frog chorus, with a Feline Owlet-nightjar and a Sooty Owl, Astrapia Camp, Huon Range, PNG)
As the dawn birdsong reached full abandon, and one could not imagine anything outdoing them, the cicadas started up. (Astrapia Camp, PNG)
Far from waning, the birdsong picked up again as the morning progressed. (Astrapia Camp, PNG)
When I returned well after midday, everything had quietened down dramatically. The thought occurred that it had now gone unnaturally quiet. (The mid afternoon hush at same relative volume, Astrapia Camp, PNG)
...the air would shimmer with the calls of what my companions had come to describe as 'dentist drill' cicadas. (With a New Guinea Woodcock in display flight, prrrp, prrrp, prrrp, Camp 13, PNG)
Immersed in their lush, greenery, my ear settled into their cycles of activity and quiet. (Lar Gibbon singing in Khao Sok rainforest, Thailand)
The night had been alive with the rattling calls of small tree frogs (Gunung Rano Rano, Sulawesi)
As the dawn chorus grew I was recording species endemic to the island; Maroon-backed Whistlers, a Rufous-sided Thrush, Mountain White-eyes and Flycatchers. (Gunung Rano Rano, Sulawesi)
I tracked a prominent call and found it coming from a Spot-tailed Goshawk, a surprise as it seemed an unusual sound for a raptor. (with Crimson-crowned Flowerpecker, Gunung Rano Rano, Sulawesi)
...a commotion of other sounds were approaching, and suddenly it seemed birds were coming from everywhere, among them Leaf Warblers and White-eyes. (Mixed species foraging flock, Gunung Rano Rano, Sulawesi)
Then came the pleasant tinkling song of a Red-whiskered Bulbul. I recognised it immediately ... I'd had them breeding outside my childhood bedroom window in Sydney. (Agonda village, Goa, India)
While standing alone in the scrub with my microphones, I'd captured the low growls of a Leopard. They don't call loudly – it was probably only a few hundred metres away. (with Red-vented Bulbuls, a distant White-bellied Sea Eagle and Coppersmith Barbet. Agonda village, Goa, India)
As dew fell from the treetops before dawn, tiny Jungle Owlets yapped in the dark before roosting, and the first Racket-tailed Drongos began calling. They were often followed by the haunting song of one of the most melodic songbirds on Earth; the Malabar Whistling Thrush. (Cotigaon Wildlife Sanctuary, Goa, India)
Soon, I had a swarm of wings, feathers and twittering voices around me. (Indian birdwave with Scarlet Minivets, Sunbirds, Flowerpeckers, Yellow-browed Bulbuls, Whistling Thrush, Brown-cheeked Fulvettas and a Racket-tailed Drongo. Cotigaon Wildlife Sanctuary, Goa, India)
Listening back to my birdwave recording ... I found that as the flock approached, a Racket-tailed Drongo calls out, sharp and clear. (Two Drongos are heard here, prior to a birdwave at Thattekad Sanctuary, Kerala, India)
Flocks (in Australia) are smaller, only involving a handful of species, and usually encountered in the cooler months. (Birdwave with White-browed Babblers, Spotted Pardalotes, Fuscous Honeyeaters, Brown-headed Honeyeaters, Yellow-rumped Thornbill and - quietly - Diamond Firetails. Kooyoora State Park, Vic)
Foraging flocks similarly occur in northern temperate regions (British birdwave with Coal Tits, Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Common Magpie and Blackbird, with Wood Pigeons and Pheasant nearby, Ennerdale Water, Cumbria, UK)
Marbled Murrelets ... call to each other as they fly out to the open ocean each morning. Listening from below, I heard their sharp voices overhead, mingling with, yet quite independent of, the Varied Thrushes, warblers and wrens making up the dawn chorus around me. (Ladybird Johnson Grove, Redwoods National Park, California)
...parrots, cockatoos and lorikeets will take to the air in great shrieking clouds, wheeling across the glowing dawn sky as they disperse to their feeding grounds. (Large flock of Budgerigars awaking and chattering at daybreak, before taking to the air. N'Dala Gorge, Eastern MacDonnel Range, central Australia)
(Choughs give) a brief burst of whistling and squawking before shaking their feathers and dropping to the ground to begin their day. (Sandon, Vic)
This is when one can hear the presence of some interesting species, such as nightjars or owls, which are more often heard than seen. (Spotted Nightjar giving both loud calls and very subtle bubbling trills. Sturt Desert, NSW)
Meanwhile, some early risers may already be vocalising... (Variegated Fairy-wren, with a Willie Wagtail, Pallid Cuckoo and White-winged Fairy-wren in background. nr Mungeranie, SA)
... the appropriately named Spotted Morning-thrushes of east Africa (with last calls of a Slender-tailed Nightjar in background. Tarangire NP, Tanzania)
I think of White-plumed Honeyeaters as giving the bush wake-up alarm. (with nocturnal Magpie. Neales River, SA)
At midsummer in Sweden... I found birds already singing at 1 a.m. Over many hours, their chorusing gradually swelled as growing light slowly permeated a landscape of mirror lakes and pine forests. (Frag Lake, Dalarna, Sweden)
White-eyes ... are among the smallest of birds. Yet in tropical forests... (Tetepare White-eyes beginning the dawn chorus, Tetepare Island, Solomon Islands)
...and Australia's northern mangroves, I've often found their pleasant twitterings to signal that things are getting going. (Yellow White-eyes. Near Exmouth, WA)
In north America, I heard sparrows and small warblers as the first singers. (Black-throated Sparrows, with Great Horned Owl in background. Mojave Desert, USA)
In the Mojave Desert ... I recorded a Northern Mockingbird giving a standout performance. (with Gambel's Quail. Mojave Desert, USA)
This extreme virtuosity is cause for wonder, as I felt listening to Nightingales ... in rural Turkey. (An extended solo Nightingale song in the predawn, near Bogazkale, Turkey)
In drier country, it is the Hooded Robin who sings in the dark, often prefacing the dawn chorus (with nocturnal songs of Pied Butcherbird and Magpies, plus Pallid Cuckoo in the background. N'Dala Gorge, Eastern MacDonnell Range, NT)
...whipcracks (of the Eastern Yellow Robin) resonate through the forest and are repeated well into the full dawn chorus. (Kangaroo Ground, Vic)
In more rainforested habitats, it may be ... Grey-headed Robins that fulfil the same role with similarly simple calls. (with early rising Silvereyes and Rufous Fantail in background plus Spotted Catbird. Paluma NP, north Qld)
In neighbouring New Guinea, I heard a related species, the White-winged Robin, as the first voice of the cloudforest dawn. (Huon Range cloudforest, PNG)
At Mutawintji I was remembering (the Willie Wagtail's) song as 'You'd better get it, then'. (Mutawintji, NSW)
Hearing a number of Willie Wagtails singing in the predawn, each giving an identical song phrase in their own local dialect, I sense these birds as living together. (near Bourke, NSW)
When a second (White-fronted Honeyeater) joins in, the alternation of their calls can be uncanny. It is a marvellously synchronised performance. (Sturt Desert, NSW)
The White-eared Honeyeaters ... are also really good at (countersinging). Their dawn chorus is far simpler ... their single repeated phrase sufficing: kWHI-choo, kWHI-choo. (Sandon, Vic)
...a pair of Brown Froglets, Crinia signifera, were calling... One would begin with a crick, crick, crick... and quickly the second would join, filling the gaps, the two establishing a pattern of perfect reciprocation. (This is one bout of calling. Listen in stereo - there's one individual frog in each channel. Sandon, Vic)
(Another sequence, this time with 3 frogs, and the synchronisation, while still attempted, is beginning to get ragged. Sandon, Vic)
When a larger community of frogs chorus, this precision of counter-calling breaks up into far more ad-hoc patterns. (Spotted Marsh Frogs and Crinia species, Kilmore, Vic)
Honeyeaters have yet another thing to tell us about how the dawn chorus functions, and they've been telling me from the very beginning. (Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater dawn dialect, 1993, Mutawintji, NSW)
The Gundabooka spinys didn't have that ... sublime vocal texture of the Mutawintji birds. I was hearing a different dialect. (with ratcheting call of a Willie Wagtail. Gundabooka, NSW)
I realised that once again, the species had tricked me. The dialect of spiny dawn song was so different that I hadn't recognised it at all. (with waterbirds on an ephemeral wetland, NSW)
Nearly twenty years after those Mutawintji spinys had first sung to me, I returned to climb that same ridgetop before dawn and hear them again. (Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater dawn dialect, 2012, with interjections from a White-fronted Honeyeater. Mutawintji, NSW)
Only in dawn singing can one hear these bird's expressions of identity ... You can't determine it from a spiny's daytime repertoire, which is completely different. A whiney, whingey concoction of weedling squawks and gurgles, it is as removed from sublime as you could imagine. (Mutawintji, NSW)
Many of Australia's dry country honeyeaters sing similarly. Wherever you hear (White-plumed Honeyeaters), their songs are sweet and distinctive, often a simple pair of downsweeping whistles: Sieup, Sieup. (Mutawintji, NSW) one travels around the country, you can recognise local variations wherever you go... (White-plumed Honeyeater dawn dialect, Clayton River, NT...)
... Painted Desert, SA
... Sundown NP, Qld
... Eastern MacDonnell Range, NT
... Mulga Park Rd, SA - possibly a simpler, non-breeding call.
As with the spinys, the daytime calls of white-plumes are completely different, yet consistent across populations. (Mutawintji, NSW)
To spinys and white-plumes can be added a whole fauna of inland honeyeater species with unique dawn repertoires: Grey-fronted Honeyeaters (near Umawa, SA)
Grey-fronted Honeyeater dawn dialect, Carrawine Gorge, WA
At first, Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters were our resident honeyeater ... the dawn chorus was alive with their chiming whistles. (Sandon, Vic)
How to describe the vocalisations of Tuis? (New Zealand native honeyeater dawn chorus, Tiritiri Matangi Island, NZ)
...first light began creeping into the sky, and I became aware of a new voice emerging ... the Bellbirds had entered the dawn chorus.
For the next half an hour, their tuneful voices came from every corner of the forest, creating an effect that was enchanting.
...I noticed the chorus of Bellbirds beginning to diminish, and an unusual new voice appearing. This was Hihi, the Stitchbird
...the air was filled with the Stitchbird's bright, incisive Tst, Tst, Tst... They remained calling for the next half an hour, quietening as the sun rose, when other species such as the Saddlebacks and the sad-voiced Kokakos eventually awoke.
Perhaps if the restoration efforts of New Zealanders are successful... How it would once have sounded, and may again; Native New Zealand birdsong including Kokakos, Saddlebacks, Whiteheads and Robins, Tiritiri Matangi Island, NZ
...the Tuis sang alone, evocatively but without constraint, continuing on until well after sunrise. The dawn chorus had lost its structure, an integrity that only a full suite of native species could provide. (Whirrinaki forest, NZ)
...I'll hear the bush come alive with Shrike-thrush song in a far more varied and articulate display as a bird utters one lovely, ringing phrase after another. (Sundown NP, Qld)
...there is a Shrike-thrush call that appears universal to the species, an explosive PEE-OO! (Sandon, Vic)
...'our' shrike-thrush gave his first call, a single songphrase from his extensive repertoire. He had to wait another full minute before a reply came from his neighbour ... When that reply came, it was with exactly the same phrase. Intonation perfect, it was identical. (Song phrase 1. Sandon, Vic)
A distant bird had introduced its own new songphrase ... Our bird rejoined, also picking up the new phrase. (Song phrase 2)
...ten minutes later, it was time for another transition ... this was a little more confused than the first. (Transition between phrase 2 and 3, with some temporary confusion)
Our shrike-thrush rejoined on the new phrase, and once again, everyone fell back into sync. (Phrase 3)
There was one final transition to a fourth songphrase ... only maintained for a handful of minutes before everyone fell silent. (Phrase 4)
Now I recognise (Shrike-thrushes) for their elaborate social interaction, audible in the first light of day. (Phrase mirroring on another morning. Sandon, Vic)
...the earliest terrestrial communications may have been tiny vibrations made by drumming or tapping, and transmitted through stems, roots, leaves or the soil matrix... A surprising number of modern insects continue to do this today. (I suspect this unidentified drumming is such a sound, made by an insect on a tree trunk immediately next to a passive audio recorder. These vibrations often sound lower in pitch than one would anticipate for the size of the insect. Sandon, Vic)
Another possibility is that the closed-mouth vocalisations of birds had a precedent in dinosaurs 'booming' with a flexible oesophagus. This imaginary Cretaceous soundscape comprises crickets, frogs, plus the slowed vocalisations of several 'early lineage' birds species: Ostrich, Peacock and Cassowary)
For a predator, this startle response must be like having an electric buzzer going off in their face. (Startle response from a Passalid beetle (cicadas audible in background), Sandon, Vic)
In terrestrial insects (stridulatory organs) are found in crickets and katydids. (Katydid species, Sandon, Vic)
In aquatic environments, a variety of water boatmen, beetles and water spiders use stridulation to create underwater soundscapes of buzzes and clicks...
(Aquatic Insects in deep freshwater pool, Duns Ck, NSW)
(Aquatic Insects in freshwater lake, Lake Walka, NSW)
The volume they create can be ear-splitting, making cicadas the loudest terrestrial animal for their body weight. (Double Drummer and Redeye cicada chorus, Wollemi, NSW)
A tree shimmering with calling cicadas has been not only observed to deter birds, but makes locating individual insects difficult. (Razor Grinder cicadas. Capertee Valley, NSW)
Hissing is an almost universal warning, heard in a range of animals from lizards to felines. (Lace Monitor. Sundown NP, Qld)
In the middle of the night we were awoken by a great bellowing and roaring. Two hippos were going for it, somewhere just beyond the edge of the camp. (Katavi River, Tanzania)
The following morning, the hippos were all jostled together flank by flank in the water, happy families once again. (Hippopotami, social vocalising. Katavi R, Tanzania)
Male Black Wallabies, negotiating status through ritual agonistic behaviour, Sandon, Victoria
View on Youtube
(White-eared Honeyeaters ... also give loud, chopping syllables or a soft, liquid trill. We hear these exchanged across the landscape, as one bird calls in response to another (Sandon, Vic)
... in those cooler months, their singing (at dawn) is ... done with almost every other call in their repertoire except kWHI-choo. (Sandon, Vic)
The sharp, high-pitched whistles of Mistletoebirds tell me when these delightful little birds are around our home. (Sundown NP, Qld)
When I hear the commanding calls of Grey Currawongs ... I know they are playing their role in dispersing the seeds of ecologically important plants. (Little Desert, Vic)
I could hear a community of vocalising fish ... making quick bursts of staccato grunting. (With Snapping Shrimp. Tantabidi, Ningaloo Reef, WA)
This gives (emus) just enough (hearing) range to detect the thin, quavering whistles of their offspring (nr Broken Hill, NSW)
...several fires erupted in southeast Queensland, including ... locations in which Sarah and I had recorded extensively to create some of our early albums. (Whipbirds, Brown Gerygones, Brown Cuckoo-dove, Logrunners, Rufous Fantail, White-headed Pigeon, Victoria's Riflebird and Green Catbird. Near Binna Burra, Qld)
The following day, another blaze began in an area of coastal bushland north of Brisbane ... where I had been recording only eight months previously. (Lewin and Scarlet Honeyeaters, Noisy Friarbirds, Bee-eaters, Lorikeets and Whipbirds. Perigian Springs, Qld)
Multiple locations I knew intimately were ablaze; Kanangara, Jenolan, and the Grose Valley. (Listening from a ridgetop down into the gorge, with Lyrebird song echoing up and mixing with Grey Fantail and a flock of Silvereyes passing by. Kanangara Walls, Blue Mountains, NSW)
The Washpool rainforest, where I'd once nearly soaked my equipment trying to record Pouched Tree Frogs in torrential rain... (Washpool NP, NSW)
Waratah Flat probably went up shortly after Christmas, in the same firestorm that destroyed Ellery Creek and the Errinundra Plateau a few days later...
(Grey Shrike-thrush, King Parrot, White-naped Honeyeaters (chasing each other), Golden Whistler and Yellow Robin. Waratah Flat, Vic)
(Rose Robin (in background), Fantailed Cuckoos, Crescent Honeyeaters (Choc-Chip!, Egypt!), Striated Thornbills, plus Yellow-faced, Lewin and White-naped Honeyeaters. Waratah Flat, Vic)
(White-browed Scrubwren and Crescent Honeyeaters. Ellery Creek, Vic)
...a rainforested gully where I'd documented Koalas, tree frogs... (Brown Tree Frogs, with Koalas (and a Yellow-bellied Glider just audible in the far distance). Double CK, near Mallacoota)
... and a rich community of birdlife only a few years previously, was utterly burned out. (Wonga Pigeons, Rose Robin, Bassian Thrush, Bell Miners, Whipbirds, Spotted Pardalotes, Superb Lyrebird, Golden Whistler, Lewin and Yellow-faced Honeyeaters.)
It is a sunlit autumn morning as I take a walk along our bush track. A gaggle of Red Wattlebirds are moving through the tree canopies, their voices like perky detonations going off here and there. (Sandon, Vic)
A White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike flies high overhead, its thin cries echoing off the sky.
I notice a soft hum emanating from the crown of a eucalypt tree and see ... native bees ... are studiously working the canopy.
In recent weeks I've encountered foraging flocks reconvening, and further on find myself surrounded by a little bustle of activity. (With Weebills, Sitellas, Spotted Pardalotes and a Grey Fantail)
As it is autumn, I'm anticipating that any day now I may overhear our Scarlet Robins giving their late season song variation. (PS: Subsequently I have! Autumn variation (1st and 3rd) mixed in with regular song phrase (2nd), mono iPhone recording.)
I approach carefully. The Speckled Warbler is still singing; such tuneful whistles, a little poem of song being given every so often. (mono iPhone recording)
The Homeward Path; a final music piece from the Rockpool Reflections album, with a Chestnut-crowned Babbler and Crimson Chats
When Rex identified a Red-backed Kingfisher clearly audible on one of my recordings – a beautiful bird I'd never set eyes on, and yet had unknowingly been in the presence of – I also realised how much I had to learn.