This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the WSRS Spring meeting in the Somerset Levels. It was a last minute decision since I had recently returned from my trip to Romania and I'm flying to Sweden for another field recording trip in two days. It's been exhausting but I'm really happy I decided to go even though the weather wasn't 100% cooperative. Best of all, I managed to record a few interesting bits of ambience for my Wetland Atmosphere library.
I have to mention this is a new venue for the WSRS Spring meeting so I knew nothing about the place. The trip booking form mentioned Bitterns, Nightingales, Reed Warblers and other wetland species so it all sounded quite promising. Lodging was at Middlewick Cottages, a clean and cozy place just outside Glastonbury.
I was joined by my girlfriend who came along to exercise nature and wildlife photography. After a 4-hour drive we got there quite tired, but we went for a short recce nevertheless. Most of the others were already out at Ham Wall RSPB Nature Reserve so we decided to go there as well. The place looked promising, although it wasn't too far away from country roads. There were swarms of mosquitoes and flies around, but surprisingly I did not get bitten too badly. They did come up in some of the attendees' recordings.
On Saturday morning we woke up at 4 AM and went back to the RSPB Reserve. We could hear plenty of Bitterns, Cetti's Warblers, Ducks and Geese, Marsh Frogs plus a lot of the usual songbirds (Robins, Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Goldcrests etc.). We also spotted several Marsh Harriers and Hobbies, and a Glossy Ibis which everyone seemed to be looking for.
Recording-wise circumstances weren't the best though. We could hear traffic in the distance and wind speed was around 9 mph so I only recorded for 20 minutes or so before giving up. Others had spent the night there and apparently around 2-3 AM there was no traffic and Bitterns were booming. Certainly their recordings sounded very good.
Having learnt from my mistake/laziness, I woke up at 1.30 AM on Sunday and went to a different place called Westhay Moor Nature Reserve. I had scouted this on Saturday afternoon, and found it to be similar to Ham Wall, only a bit more out of the way. There was a narrow country road going right through it which allowed for easier access to the reedbeds.
It was raining when I got there a little after 2AM, so parked by a hide I had spotted the day before and I sat in my car waiting for the rain to stop. 10 minutes and 2 cups of coffee later I realized I had my Cinela Kelly Rain Cover in the car with me. Wind speed was quite low so there was no need for the fur cover. After many minutes of fumbling in the dark I managed to replace the fur cover with the foam rain cover and lay down 40 meters of cable. I placed the double MS rig on a boardwalk in the middle of the reeds and then went back to my car where it was nice and dry. Short snippet from this recording:
As you can hear the Bitterns were booming not far from the mics, ignoring my car that was parked close by or my walking up and down the boardwalk earlier, laying cables in the dark. I've recorded Bitterns in the Danube Delta as well, but in Romania these birds seemed much more difficult to approach even if their numbers were huge. We saw 15 to 20 individuals in just one tree, but as soon as they'd see or hear us they would all fly away. We only managed to get distant recordings, even after leaving our rigs out overnight.
This time around I was able to get close without causing them to flee, which made me feel incredibly privileged. I was one of only two people to hear this magnificent bird booming (Robert Malpas was there as well, in his car waiting for the rain to stop). It looks like British Bitterns are more used to having people around, and they also have to live in much smaller wetlands. This probably explains why I was allowed to go about my business recording them.
At any rate, the rain stopped around 4 AM but then the occasional traffic started. Shortly thereafter I could also hear sheep and cows, probably complaining about the weather. I kept recording until around 6, but only a few bits are usable. Overall I got around 20 to 30 minutes of clean recordings, including many clear Bittern calls.
This year's Spring meeting was a very enjoyable opportunity to go out and do some wetland recording. I will surely go back to the Somerset Levels in the future as the area seemed full of field recording potential. It was also great to see some of the Society's members and to spend some time talking about field recording.