overwintering

Feb 4, 2024 | Activities, Blog, Events


Overwintering I  
public rehearsals and performances late Feb/early March
Community rehearsals: Thursday 29 Feb, Sunday 25 Feb Community performance Saturday 2 March all 6.30pm (Performance will include time on the estuary. Please contact us if you have any access requirements. All are welcome

While we are get cosy in our homes, out of the cold and shut out the long nights,  the estuary is whistling and buzzing with birds and other creatures taking advantage of the quieter time, the cover of darkness to feed and rest and in the case of migrants from Northern regions, the warmer temperatures. As many people know, our Estuary is an internationally important site for wildlife and habitats in part because of these seasonal visitors. This includes status as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Ramsar, and a Special Protection Area. 

Artists and musicians Emma Welton, Sarah Owen and Anne-Marie Culhane are spending time in January and February listening, singing and sounding with and around the estuary and exploring estuary habitats (reeds, tideline, mud flats).  In January we have been learning about the overwintering birds with South East Devon Wildlife nature wardens, RSPB and other keen birders, spending time at different times of day and tidal cycle and starting to think about creating six pieces or scores including music for voices and instruments, vocal soundings, movement and sound recordings. We are running an estuary sound walk with 14-18 year olds from Exmouth Sea Scouts where scouts will learn about the estuary sounds as well as learn how to record them.

In late February we’re devising, rehearsing and performing the pieces indoors and outdoors on the Estuary with local participants as well as creating an open source recording with written text description and background to the pieces. No singing experience is needed to take part.

Overwintering builds on Singing the Sea  https://tidelines.uk/blog/singing-the-sea-alive-alive-o/ and Alive Alive O! Part 1&2 https://tidelines.uk/blog/alive-alive-o-part-2/previous projects working with sound, voice, underwater accoustics, the public and the wild inhabitants of the Exe estuary. See also Tidelines’ visitor leaflet Wider Than a River – a guide to the Exe estuary from local people which offered different ways to look at, experience and value the Estuary throughout the year. https://tidelines.uk/blog/wider-than-the-sea/ Overwintering has been funded by Creative East Devon Fund

 


Emma: Over the time I’ve been sitting out on the estuary this winter the bird life out on the estuary has felt increasingly strange: feeding feeding feeding and resting, feeding feeding feeding and resting, and moving around seemingly at random. They thrive in conditions we tend to avoid – the mud, the cold, the wet – never mind whether it’s day or the darkest night.

Inspired by the 3,000 mile migration of the dark-bellied brent geese from Siberia to our estuary, throughout this project I’m making my own migration by bike with my recording equipment from my home in Exeter to the estuary. The brents travel and feed together as families within the crowd, so because I was born on the estuary I’m thinking of one of those we hear brrrk, brrrk, brrrking out there on the mud as my daughter, albeit born at the other end of the migration. 

My body is feeling both the benefit and the wear of my migration. I fly along on my bike, and it’s exhilarating especially in the dark. I started by doing the 1.5 hour journey in one go, then learned that the geese take stops here and there on the way, sitting out poor weather and taking time to rest and feed if they find good food. So now I rest on a bench more-or-less halfway, eat a banana and have a drink. When I arrive on the estuary I am very hot, sweaty and thirsty and I need to sit down and recover. Once it’s time to leave I need some chocolate to give me energy to cycle home again. My legs are very tired by the end and I need a big meal. I’d find it difficult to do the same again the next day. It’s an attempt to understand where we are similar and where we differ. 

I come closer to bridging the gulf between my life and that of the birds when I can remain estuary-side for over twelve hours – enough to become part of the tide’s cycle. Then I understand their movements are not random – they are in rhythm, pushed off by the rising water, pulled back by the fresh food from the falling tide, flocking to a field of tasty fertilised grass, choosing to hang out where there is less threat of predation. This becomes a meaningful pace, compared to which the thundering traffic and racing trains appear madly fast. I suppose the sounds of rush hour is the music of human migration.

Sarah and I have tried making sounds with the estuary birds in the freezing darkness, and on one occasion we heard swan’s wings beating past us invisibly, followed by a cyclist’s legs pumping along the shoreside path. We were struck by the similarity of the sound made by these limbs, whether bird or human.

Here are the recordings which include the beating wings and pumping legs. In the first I play a little bit of ocarina, and in the second, Sarah vocalises.


We are trying to find out what human sounds we can make which feel appropriate. I’m not very happy about the mimicking of the ocarina (even though my bird id app identifies me as a Northern Pintail) because it feels too close to the birds, and potentially disruptive. So I’m trying to work out what music we can make with our voices which is both authentically human, yet sits within the ongoing music of the estuary. I think Sarah’s tentative sounds give us some good starting points.

Sarah:

Huge wide expanse, feel I can breathe more deeply here with this space.

It’s a crystalline dark and still, with lights twinkling and bitterly cold. But the estuary is wide -awake with layer upon layer of sounds of birds.

So many curlew here! Hard to comprehend how much they are under threat when we are surrounded by their calling. How different it would be here without them.

Is it a curlew flight call we can here? But we can’t hear the sound moving so we feel they are staying still.

Many geese barking, woofing in groups, conversing. At first, I thought the sound was dogs barking but then I realised geese. Sama describes it as a purrrr but I found it hard to translate these sounds as a purrrr, more of a buzzing woof.

Incredible moment of many beating wings flying very close to us. We couldn’t see them, but the sound was stunningly clear.  We didn’t know where, who and how many, but could feel the beating and effect of this collective movement.

Emma’s ocarina is at times hard to distinguish from the bird calls, but there seems to be moments of interaction/conversation – but is it alarming or non-threatening?

Walking down from the bench on to the shore feels like an important transition into a different zone – proximity to the mud, being on the same level, but most strikingly the difference underfoot.

I felt excitement about making vocal sounds in this wide expanse of space. But on hearing my voice come out, I quickly felt uneasy. What was I saying? What is the implication of my vocal sounds? If birds are using their calls to define territory, is it right for me to make bird-like sounds here – what if I am threatening their territory? Sama talked movingly about the impact humans make on the birds, feelings of being at ease or not to feed and rest here, how they can be in a perpetual state of anxiety from being continually disturbed by humans. We have squeezed them into the smallest possible spaces and all they crave is distance and space to feed undisturbed. Maybe these are not the right sounds. How can and should we behave here?

Heard a terrible, painful screaming.  It is hard to know exactly where sounds are coming from – are they behind or in front?  Can’t tell where sounds are initiated – disorienting

So much sound here in full, luscious stereo – we can’t see, but the darkness is alive.

Anne-Marie: Every day is different. An unfolding drama right here which starts in the car park behind Exmouth train station! I’m enjoying discovering the relationship between the different birds, the incoming and outgoing tides and different soundscapes at different times of day. I can visit these seasonal visitors who come from as far away as Greeland is just 5 minutes from my house by bike! 

I’m noticing it takes quite a bit of time for me to settle, to fully give my attention to the birds and prioritise listening over my other senses. I am often out for several hours, at night or under the moon, with a flask of tea. I tend to become more attentive when I’m standing or sitting still and on my own or without any human distraction. 

Most visits I see the kingfisher who is surprisingly bold for a species I considered a shy being. Her iridescent turquoise stands out so vividly against the chocolate-coloured mud and her thrilling, parallel, hovering, zippiness (up to 40 kph) differs so much from the wading, floating, flapping, probing birds. I’m wondering what her predators are here? And what she sees and how fast her heart beats. I’m trying to find out more about sound, sound production and vision in birds and how their senses make up the world.   Late at night, in the darkness , Wigeon define the dark void of the estuary –  a series of satellites marking location through intermittent pulses of sound, the Curlew’s voice rises, trills and arcs, seagulls chatter – endlessly. This highly local experience under the moon and stars threads me inevitably to wider earth systems  –  tides, migratory patterns, food chains, moon cycles, relationships between species, extinction, the challenges of the change climate and back again – stresses caused by human, dogs and the constant hum of mechanised sounds from all around this body of water,  wonder that these creatures too call this place home.

 

 

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