21st December, 2017

Little goat of the air

There it was again: a mysterious humming vibrato piercing the silence, then gone. Whatever the source, it was close, and moving at high speed. The twilight made these sudden whirrs seem unnerving yet also fascinating, a puzzle to be solved.

Light begins to fade at our campsite in Achmelvich, early June 2017.

The sound wasn’t vocal, so much as structural. Mechanical. Imagine the “blade slap” of helicopter rotors buffering through a cardboard tube. Phonetically it was a fast vuvuvuvuvu, blown through Hans Zimmer’s comb. The noises accompanied our torchlit trips to the toilet block, but the culprits went unseen. We never did catch a glimpse in the gloaming.

These crepuscular bleats soundtracked our nights under canvas at Achmelvich, a remote coastal settlement in the Western Highlands. Over those five days, devoid of Internet access, we ran through the possibilities. Drone? Not in near darkness. Bats? Well, they’re mostly silent, so no. Owl? No owl would make such disruptive sounds. We wondered if it might be nightjars, before deciding we knew nothing at all about nightjars. Those were our best guesses, and they were wrong.

Achmelvich was our most Northerly camp, the last of many stepping stones toward the top. After that, we headed South to Glen Nevis, and a few days later we drove home to the normality of Nottingham. We completely forgot about those sounds that’d stumped us; those weird noises way up there in the Highlands.

Just a week or so later, we happened to be half-watching BBC Springwatch. Presenter Chris Packham introduced a clip featuring himself, and some other chap wielding a giant plastic dish. They were wandering around, speaking in riddles, and building anticipation without clarity—much as I am doing right now. After a couple of minutes, I noticed the two men jumping and colliding with glee. Then we heard it! Geri and I shouted back at the TV: “That’s it!” And it was. The humming vibrato. The buzz. The whirr.

Seconds later, it dawned on me. I’d known these sounds since the age of twelve.

I know that I knew because I’ve recently dusted off my childhood nature journals. I’d made dated entries explaining this phenomenon in some detail, with illustrations. The following year, I’d again documented the sounds and their source. I knew the term “drumming”. And then somewhere along the way, I’d forgotten.

These were the sounds of the snipe. Listen (mp3)

Snipe sketch
One of the snipe sketches from my childhood nature journal, 1987.

The common snipe’s drumming sonation — also referred to as “bleating”, “throbbing”, “winnowing”, “rattling”, and “fluting” — is one of the weirdest non-vocal sounds in nature. The term sonate describes the deliberate production of sounds from structures such as the bill, wings, feet, tail, or use of tools. In the snipe’s case, the drumming sound is produced mechanically by two specialised tail feathers, pointed outwards to its body. These two feathers vibrate in the slipstream as it dives, creating the eerie sound.

In 1931, a man named Sir Philip Manson-Bahr stood up in a busy restaurant. He produced a cork with two snipe tail feathers sticking out of it, on a string. He then twirled the construction around his head at speed. In doing so, he approximated the drumming sound for his ornithology club colleagues. The theory of the tail feathers was already widely held, but this dramatic event proved it once and for all. Recently I ethically sourced an assortment of snipe tail feathers, and after some trial and error managed to recreate Manson-Bahr’s demo — albeit in my living room, and not in a busy restaurant.

Several years ago, a fantastically in-depth paper titled “Sonation in the male common snipe…” was published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, featuring high-speed video that demonstrated “a flag-like fluttering of their tail feathers and consequent vortex shedding”. When the male birds reached a speed of 31mph, the outer feathers produced the drumming sound. The study gets very technical, exposing the detailed mechanics behind the drumming. It also offers a better understanding of why a female snipe might find this kind of thing impressive.

The late Seamus Heaney references the snipe in his 1972 poem “The Backward Look”, which deals with the erosion of the Irish domain, particularly the linguistic impurities threatening the language. The snipe carries his message, its bleat a scream, and he describes the corkscrewing bird with a variety of folk expressions. Here’s a little over half of it—emphasis Heaney's own:

A stagger in the air
as if a language
failed, a sleight
of wing.

A snipe’s bleat is fleeting
its nesting ground
into dialect,
into variants,

transliterations whirr
on the nature reserves–
little goat of the air,
of the evening

little goat of the frost.
It is his tail feathers
drumming elegies
in the slipstream

I’d lost something too. It alarmed me that I could forget such rich knowledge, that I hadn’t recalled my childhood encounters with the birds.

Yet more snipe. This is a detailed entry from my 1988 nature journal.

As adulthood sets in, we forget all sorts of valuable things we discovered as kids. Or do we? I think most of that foundational knowledge is still there informing what we do as grownups, or lies dormant until needed. I like to think my memories of the snipe were merely mislabelled, or lodged in the wrong cluster of neurons; the request was made but the file not found.

Even so, my inability to identify the snipe at that moment, as they flew around my head, signified the disconnect. It was symptomatic of my shallower understanding of nature since losing myself to computers almost twenty years earlier. After the late nineties, any information I had on the common snipe would’ve been useless to me, and thus buried until Chris Packham reminded me. I’m happy to have solved the mystery, and retrospectively enhanced my memory of those evenings at the campsite.

My renewed awareness of the drumming snipe has already served me well. On a recent first listen of Björk’s new album, Utopia, I spotted — amongst the chorus of natural noises — that familiar winnowing bleat lending percussive texture to the track Body Memory (Spotify link)— at 1:07 if you’re keen to hear for yourself.

That experience in Achmelvich has made me even more excited about the future of “Shazam-esque” tools. Sound recognition features heavily in my research, and I’ve been playing with apps such as Song Sleuth for birdsong identification, and plug-in hardware like the Echo Meter Touch for translating ultrasonic bat echolocation. It doesn’t seem much of a stretch to imagine recording any sound with my phone and receiving an immediate ID, or to make possible an operating system with sound exploration baked in.

As Björk herself recently said, “If we ever needed a utopia where nature and technology can collaborate, it’s now.” A utopia in any realm seems distant these days, but as we continue to expose the negative influences of digital technology, it’s not so far-fetched to imagine the beneficial role it can play. Remarkable digital tools are already helping many to reconnect with the natural world through a new image of nature, and the wealth of progress so far is an encouraging step in the right direction.

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