Written by Pete Smith
I recently got back from a great field recording trip to the Black River Valley in central Sweden. The trip was organised by Stefan Taylor, Kari Knight and Richard Youell and looked like a great chance to go recording somewhere I have never been before, so I decided to give it a go. Stefan is a naturalist who has owned a small cabin in the area since 2009. He knows the area well and has been scoping out the best spots for recording particular species for the last 10 years. He is the first port of call for finding out where and when to go to get good recordings. Richard is a fellow sound recordist and landscape photographer and Kari is a Yoga instructor and journalist who helped with the cooking and organisation of the trip. Also on the trip with us was Anthony McGeehan, a wildlife photographer and writer from Ireland. Here are some of Anthony’s pictures.
Some of the houses we passed looked a bit like they are from a horror movie or some kind of scandi noir
I had a very busy period of work during April shooting films up in the highlands and over in Sardinia so I thought this would be a good chance to get a break (even if I would still be sound recording!). I also thought it would be a great chance to hear a capercaillie lek as numbers in Sweden are much higher than in Scotland and Stefan had found some spots where he had heard them lekking. Flights from London Stansted to Vasteras airport only take around 2 hours and then it’s just a 40 minute car journey to where we were staying.
This part of Sweden is very flat with lots of hay fields and large pine forests with small patches of birch clumped together at the edges of the fields and lots of small lakes dotted throughout the landscape. There are lots of small huts which are all painted a lovely kidney bean red. Some of the houses we passed looked a bit like they are from a horror movie or some kind of scandi noir like The Killing… but most are just lovely old fashioned summer houses often built around the edges of the lakes. The cabin I was staying in is below and Stefan’s house is in the photo below that.
The thing that strikes you when you first arrive is the lack of people and the huge number of forestry tracks. Without Stefan as our guide we would have gotten lost pretty quickly! The forest was largely pine and the land was very flat, a big difference from the hills and hard wood forests of Scotland where I usually record. I initially found it pretty bleak, but this feeling faded quickly as soon as I got out into the forest and discovered quite how much wildlife there was on offer.
The thing that strikes you when you first arrive is the lack of people and the huge number of forestry tracks.
After arriving I decided to not waste any time and to head straight out to the caper lek. Stefan had already setup a hide and had spent the last few nights trying to discover where they were tending to lek. Capercaillie leks are famously unpredictable. They are not like black grouse, which tend to lek in exactly the same position each year. The area of the lek tends to be over at least four square miles of pine forest and they will often move to a slightly different place to call and display each morning.
The hide (shown below) Stefan had setup was very luxurious compared to a lots of hides I had slept in in the past. It was a hunting hide with handy viewing windows and enough space for me to lie down if I angled myself from corner to corner.
As it had been very cold recently in Sweden, Stefan had packed it with bedding and gave me his heavy winter sleeping bag to sleep in, so I never felt the cold. To avoid disturbance I entered the hide around 6pm and stayed till I could no longer hear any caper activity. This usually happened around 9 or 10am. So it was a long stint in the hide! Kari made me up some lovely sandwiches and a flask of tea and I popped into the shop and got myself some amusingly-named Swedish chocolate. Shown below.
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Within the first hour I heard snipe ‘drumming’, black grouse, woodcock, roe deer calls, black birds, mistle thrush, song thrush, ravens, chaffinch, great tits and whooper swans in the distance. I first heard capers at around 8pm.
The calls sound to me like an entire farm yard of animals in one bird
At night they tend to arrive at dusk to roost and make an almighty crash as they land high in the trees. They then have a look about to see if it’s safe and sometimes come down out of the trees to display or just call from the trees. However, the majority of activity tends to happen in the morning from the first light onwards. The calls sound to me like an entire farm yard of animals in one bird: there are pig-like grunts and squeals, clicks and pops that sound like the clip-clop of a horse’s hooves (for this reason they are often know as “horse of the woods”) and a variety of other weird and wonderful sounds. How much activity there is depends very much on the weather, so if the wind is high or there is a lot of rain they will tend not to call very much if at all.
It’s quite exciting to hear them arrive and strangely that night they did a lot of calling from around 8pm till about 9.30 and then not very much in the morning. Sadly the calls were coming from too far away for me to get a decent recording. Richard however got a great recording. He had left his mics around 300m from where I was, slightly further up the hill. Richard tends to use a dummy head and record in binaural so best listened to on headphones. He was using EM172 electret mics and recording into LS-11. As Richard explained, these mics are plugin power rather than phantom power which makes them very good for leaving on over night unattended as they don’t use up batteries very quickly. They are also only £68 for a stereo pair and have a similar noise floor to DPA 4060s.
The next day we took a trip to Farmansbo reserve. It is a lovely old woodland with huge pine trees and amazing lichen and moss formations. Halfway through the walk we heard a goshhawk calling. We then discovered there was a nest directly above us and saw a male fly away. The first time I’ve seen a goshhawk in the wild!
That night I decided to try and record black-throated divers at a local lake. I set up my mics on the far side of the lake and sat listening as the sun went down. I heard a black woodpecker off to my left as I arrived. They drum at an amazing volume and sound a bit like a machine gun. A lot louder than the great spotted woodpeckers I’m used to hearing back in Scotland. I could see the black-throated divers were on the lake through my binoculars but there were a few Canadian geese on the lake that I think someone had been feeding. They kept coming over towards my mics calling and making a right racket; quite annoying!
Then eventually the black-throated divers called. Once, right in front of my mics, and then again slightly off to the right. I love the sound with the echoes from the forest around the lake. As the sun went down woodcock started roding in the forest behind me and I heard snipe drumming off to my left and the bubbling calls of black grouse in the distance. A lovely mix of different sounds!
On the final night I had one last go in the hide at the caper lek. I heard them crashing into the trees at around 8.40pm and then a few grunts but not much activity in the night. Then the next morning they started calling at around 3.30am. The sound continued right through till around 9.30am. Again, sadly it was slightly too far from my mics to get a good recording but that gives me a reason to come back!
This area of Sweden is so full of wildlife and really is a sound recordist’s dream come true
The trip overall was amazing. Such a lovely unspoiled part of the world. I came away with lots of lovely ambience recordings (some of which I’ve already used in film projects) and some great individual species recordings which will definitely get used in the next wildlife film I work on or even in dramas to slot in around dialogue. This area of Sweden is so full of wildlife and really is a sound recordist’s dream come true. I’ll definitely be back!
Massive thanks to Stefan Taylor for organising everything, Kari for all the wonderful food, Richard Youell for all the sound recording tips and Anthony for his amazing bird knowledge and ability to mimic any birdsong on command!
Stefan runs trips in April and May, so to book yourself on one of next year’s trip email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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