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The Pied Butcherbirds of Ormiston Gorge

This album is our 100th Listening Earth release, and to celebrate this milestone, we're returning to one of our most evocative field recordings from the last 25 years.

 

In the small hours of the morning, a full moon illuminates a large waterhole at the entrance to Ormiston Gorge. The landscape all around is epic and ancient; massive quartzite rock walls are silhouetted above sandy banks lined with pale-barked gum trees.

This permanent waterhole is a haven for wildlife, and here we listen into the night. A gentle breeze occasionally whispers through the leaves of the old ghost gums, while crickets chirrup from small reedbeds.

Subtle sounds come from all around, but the mesmerising focus is a Pied Butcherbird. It roosts unseen in a tree opposite, singing gracefully. The song of the Pied Butcherbird is renowned as being among the most musical in the avian world. But now, in the depths of the night, this bird is singing slowly, serenely, languidly, as though half asleep. And in this place, surrounded by an amphitheatre of rock, its voice echoes - one of nature's most sublime songs in a natural cathedral.

While the Butcherbird is the nocturnal deva, there is a whole outback ecosystem to be heard. Desert Tree Frogs chorus from the far end of the waterhole, a White-sided Freetail Bat hawks for insects overhead, and a Barn Owl screeches while flying past in the dark. On the water, a pair of Grebes float silently, every now and then giving soft chattering calls.

The following evening we return to the same place to listen again, but this night our Butcherbird has roosted elsewhere, and its song echoes eerily from further up the gorge. Yet it is every bit as beautiful as previously. Meanwhile Rock Wallabies feed and move around the nearby rock slopes, occasionally dislodging stones or thumping noisily. Suddenly a pair of Black-fronted Dotterels take flight and begin a raspy calling on the wing as they circle back and forth over the water.

These recordings are the complete sequences, remastered from our original field tapes.

"These recordings were made in 1998, and at the time I felt they were magical. Edited versions of the two evenings became the first and last tracks of our 'Spirit of the Outback' album.

"Since then, numerous people have commented that the Ormiston Butcherbird is a standout recording for them. I have played it at many lectures, and featured it in the beginning of my TedX talk. I've analysed the repertoire of this particular bird in terms of its phrase structure and sequencing. The British composer, Mark de Brito, used the recording as the basis of a solo piano composition.

"Recently, Hollis Taylor, a musician and recordist who's PhD research, book and CD of original compositions explores the aesthetics of Butcherbird song, has told me that despite many visits to Ormiston over the years, she has never heard them sing there as we did those evenings. So it seems this recording is not only beautiful, but documents a truly serendipitous event.

"For this album, we've chosen to complement the Ormiston recordings with one of our first nature recordings from 1993, and the one that really inspired me to become a field recordist.

"It is another outback recording, from Mootwingee in western NSW, of Spiney-cheeked Honeyeaters singing at dawn.

"We were at Mootwingee to record music for an early project that became 'Rockpool Reflections'. Capturing environmental ambiences was part of the aim, but not something I'd done before. At the time I had only borrowed equipment, and was teaching myself how to work with the microphones.

"The experience of hearing these Spineys singing hauntingly in the first light of day was a revelation to me. Despite a childhood fascination with birds in the Sydney bush where I'd grown up, I'd never heard this species, and realised I'd not taken much notice of birdsong. It felt to me that I was hearing for the first time; more than just birdsong, I was hearing the landscape giving voice to itself.

"It was a formative step in the Listening Earth story, yet only a small sequence from the recording has so far seen the light of day. As with the Ormiston recordings, I've returned to the original field tapes, and remastered the complete sequence.

"As I listen back over 25 years, I can remember my younger self standing in the dark, enthralled by what he was hearing, and hoping the recorder was working!"

Track 1: 0:00
1993: Spiney-cheeked Honeyeater Dawn Chorus, Mutawintji

'Spineys' have a unique predawn vocalisation, which is rarely heard at any other time of day. This is the dominant birdsong of this recording, and which I found so haunting and beautiful. Every now and then, one will include a burst of its diurnal repertoire, a lovely whiney, 'weedling' song (eg 0:16, 0:56 and variation calls at 8:49 and 11:58).

As this was recorded on a rocky ridgetop, most of the other birdsong is somewhat distant, heard from birds in the surrounding landscape; mulga covered slopes, overlooking gorges, creeklines and beyond to the open plains. A large mob of Little Corellas wake up, having been roosting in mature river gums that line the creeks (1:13...), and from beyond, the booming of Emus out on open ground can be heard occasionally (eg; 5:38).

A White-winged Fairy-wren sings downslope (2:03, 2:52...), Magpies carol distantly (6:13) and the voice of a Grey Shrike-thrush can be heard echoing up from the creekline (8:05, louder at 12:20). There is also a distant Peaceful Dove (...10:39...), and a single grizzle from an Apostlebird (5:56). A small flock of Chestnut-rumped Thornbills appear, with their distinctive, soft whistles: "siew" (9:46...).

A Kookaburra (at the most western edge of its distribution) begins laughing (11:58).

 

Track 2: 13:46
1998: Pied Butcherbirds, Ormiston Gorge, 3 a.m., Full Moon

Our solo Pied Butcherbird begins calling (14:23), building on a core repertoire of about 6-8 phrases, adding improvisation and variation on these according to its own aesthetic (I particularly like the phrases at 22:59, 29:08 and 30:26).

A White-sided Freetail Bat hawks for insects overhead, it is one of the few species of Australian bat that is audible to humans (14:46... 21:56... 23:33...) A Desert Tree Frog, sheltering under an overhanging rock ledge at the far end of the waterhole, begins calling, its rocky refuge providing nice sonic amplification (15:01, 22:37).

Pallid Cuckoos are frequent nocturnal callers, and the hoarse whistle of a female can be heard way off in the distance (17:25, 17:45). A Black-fronted Dotterel, feeding on the water edge, takes wing with a sharp series of 'pip's (17:56). Hooded Robins also call in the dark, frequently being heard heralding the dawn chorus - but here, under moonlight, it is calling in the deep night (18:05, 18:20, 18:33...).

A Barn Owl shriekes while flying past (26:01, 26:27). Shortly after, a night beeze picks up, stiring the canopy of the old gums trees lining the waterhole. As the wind continues, our Butcherbird falls silent.

 

Track 3: 34:38
1998: Pied Butcherbirds, Ormiston Gorge, The Following Evening

Other Pied Butcherbirds, holding territories further up the Ormiston Creek Gorge, have been audible in the previous recording. Now, the following night, with our feature bird presumably roosting a little further upstream, all the Butcherbird song drifts in echo. Perhaps this is a more beautiful recording, with the birds continuing their singing in the stillness of the night.

Species heard previously can be heard again, such as the Desert Tree Frogs, but there are others we haven't heard so far. Notably, Black-footed Rock Wallabies are more present this night, feeding on the rock slopes, occasionally hissing at each other, and dislodging stones as they hop noisily (eg; 63:41, 69:20).

On the water, a pair of Australasian Grebes chatter softly to each other (40:13) and splash around (41:02). The Back-fronted Dotterels are also more active, engaging in extended songflights back and forth from one end of the waterhole to the other (52:55). As with the previous evening, a breeze eventually comes up.

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