Zero Dark Thirty (aka half past midnight) might be a suitable hour for the US military to start their night time operations, but the crack team assembling on Abbey Lane on Sunday preferred the even less hospitable 3.30 am.
With their night vision head torches, high tech surveillance equipment and stealth legwear to avoid detection, squad leader Chris Watson whispered his instructions, and his Circle of Fire team from Museums Sheffield headed off into Ecclesall Woods.
In a garden in Whirlowdale, an insomniac terrier was waiting.
Bafta-winning Chris Watson is one of the world’s most respected location wildlife sound recordists.
Over the last year he’s captured sidewinder snakes in the African desert, elephant migrations in Zimbabwe, the sound of a million flamingos and Tanzanian crocodiles eating wildebeest.
But on Sunday, Chris, who began his wildlife recording career as a teenager by recording the family’s Totley bird table on a reel to reel tape recorder, was just as excited to be recording the dawn chorus in Ecclesall Woods.
“You get the best dawn chorus in the world in these latitudes,” he whispered, as the 14 strong team of nature recordists tramped as quietly as possible into the middle of the woods. (To minimise disturbance, most sported the advisory non-rustling clothing and the local version of the traditional US Navy Seal night vision gear: a rear light from a bicycle).
After setting up their microphones, Chris and his students stumbled out into a clearing, turned off their bicycle lights and waited.
Lisa Travis and Aine Parkinson unpacked two collapsible armchairs and flasks of coffee, while the hardened nature watchers laid down in the leaves. As the minutes passed, it became clear that the distant terrier was not going to stop barking.
After some time, a robin began the prelude a few copses away. Then a blackbird, then another robin started a call and response solo, and a wood pigeon launched like a shaken doormat from a tree above. Another blackbird, and over the next few seconds, all the birds in Ecclesall and Abbeydale. Along with a terrier in Whirlowdale.
Sunday’s recordings, and a collection of snipe, grouse and curlews from Saturday’s western moors, will form part of Chris’s ‘Inside the Circle of Fire’ sound map exhibition at the Millennium Gallery in September.
“I was delighted when the Millennium Gallery approached me because I was born and grew up here. I started recording on the moors as a teenager and ended up recording with Cabaret Voltaire in the city, so I liked the idea of retracing my steps from the outskirts, using the water of the rivers as a vehicle to get from the outside in, from the moors to open water in the city centre.”
The dawn chorus, crowds at Hillsborough and Bramall Lane, the Town Hall clock, Kelham Island, the sounds of city streets and recordings made by the wider population of Sheffield will form part of the ‘sound cloud’ of the exhibition. (Visit www.museums-sheffield.org.uk).
The Ecclesall chorus died down, and the team spiralled into the woods to pick up willow warblers, chiff chaff, nuthatches, great spotted woodpeckers and eventually, the now quiet terrier.
“I’ve been round the world several times and never heard anything as beautiful as the song of a blackbird, or heard a dawn chorus as rich as we have here,” said Chris.
“May is the perfect time. You don’t need any special equipment, just a pair of ears. I’d say if you want to hear some of the most amazing and exotic wildlife sounds in the world just stick your head out your bedroom window at about four in the morning, because wherever you are in Sheffield you’ll hear bird song.
“Or like we did today, get up early and lie down and listen in the woods. You’ll never forget it.”