Sep 3rd, 2008 by andrew skeoch
There are times when nature’s sounds and the physical landscape come together to create a moment that is utterly magical. Such an occasion involved the voice of one of the world’s most sublime songbirds, the Pied Butcherbird, and the cathedral-like acoustic of Ormiston Gorge in the Australian desert.
The recording we made of the butcherbirds in Ormiston Gorge features on the opening and closing tracks of our album ‘Spirit of the Outback’.
In the outback, birdsong can often be heard all night, especially around the time of the full moon. I have never heard this phenomenon anywhere else, day birds typically being silent during the night hours. But in the outback, magpies, butcherbirds, honeyeaters and willie wagtails can often be heard singing across a starlit landscape. And what makes their songs particularly haunting is that, as the birds rest, their night calls are languid, slow and unhurried.
This nocturnal birdsong obliges the nature sound recordist to remain on duty all night!
Sarah and I were camped near Ormiston Gorge, a magnificent, kilometre-long gap in the Macdonnell Ranges, west of Alice Springs in central Australia. During the day it is a popular spot for locals and tourists, and the large permanent waterhole at the entrance of the gorge is a favourite place for picnics and swimming. At night however, it is deserted, except for the pied butcherbirds.
I drifted up from sleep around 2.30am, and could hear a butcherbird singing down at the gorge. Pied butcherbirds have the most sublime song; a series of fluted musical tones, woven into a repertoire of short melodic phrases that are often sung in duet. On this night however it was only one bird, and it was roosting right across the waterhole from where I set up my microphones in the moonlight.
The pure tones of its melodic voice echoed up the gorge, adding a huge reverberance in the stillness of the night. From far away up the gorge, another bird was also singing, its voice floating distantly. I was privileged to a beautiful performance that night – I have not heard a butcherbird sing so wonderfully before or since.
The butcherbird was the diva, but not the only voice to be heard. As you listen to the recording, you can hear crickets calling from the reeds around the waterhole, and a small bat flies past with an audible chipping. A pair of hoary-headed grebe float on the water, calling occasionally, and a black-fronted dotterel patrolling the water’s edge takes to the air with its characteristic flight song. On the rock slope opposite, a group of black-tailed rock wallabies feed, their movements dislodging small stones every now and again. A barn owl flies unseen overhead, its call echoing against the rocks. Tree frogs begin croaking noisily at the far end of the waterhole, and later a hooded robin, which is a species only heard in the small hours of the morning, begins calling nearby.
As I said, it was a magical occasion. If I could give one example of how musical nature can be, I would choose this recording.
The following evening I hoped for a repeat of the concert, but the butcherbird was calling from a different roost, much further up the gorge. I recorded anyway, but with a mild sense of disappointment. It was only later when I listened back to that second recording, that I heard how evocative it was. It was peaceful and still, distant butcherbird calls giving a palpable sense of space, one of those rare moments when you feel you can actually hear the landscape itself.
Thus we chose to bookend our ‘Spirit of the Outback’ album with these two unique recordings. The recording here is an edit from the first track.
‘Spirit of the Outback’ is available either on CD or for digital download from the Listening Earth website.
And finally – if you ever go to Ormiston Gorge, camp for an evening and go down to the waterhole in the wee small hours of the morning. If you are fortunate, you may hear one of Australia’s most beautiful songbirds performing in one of nature’s most magnificent concert halls.
Established in 1993 by nature sound recordist Andrew Skeoch and photographer Sarah Koschak, Listening Earth offers a range of beautiful nature sound recordings from around the world.
"Our albums feature only the sounds of nature as you would hear in the wild - no music or other distractions. Recorded in often remote and pristine locations, they bring you the relaxing and beautiful sounds of our living planet. Listen, and let our recordings take you there."