A week of sounding the Pilliga

In summing up our recent week of sharing sound in the Pilliga forest, I can’t say it better than Tony Baylis; “the best AWSRG workshop I’ve been to”.

From left to right (* in back row):
Kerry Watson, Fred van Gessel, Michael Hannan, Julie Broken-Brow, Sue Gould, Jessie Cappadonna, Rod Thorn*, Vicki Hallett & son Jackson, Bob Tomkins*, Lucy Farrow, Howard Plowright, Leah Barclay*, David Secomb*, Pat (from Gamilaroi mob), Jennifer Ackerman*, Nicole Carroll, Sue Boardman*, Jill Plowright, Michael Mahony*, Marg Eller*, Andrew Skeoch, Mike Fitzgerald*, Ros Bandt, Arthur McDevitt*, Melinda Barrie & Tony Baylis.
Photographer: Jeff Eller

For the workshop organisers – Sue Gould, Bob Tomkins and myself – to see everyone in animated discussion, learning from inspiring fellow recordists, catching up with old friends and making new ones, was a delight.

We had such a diversity of experienced and high profile speakers, it was somewhat an embarrassment of riches. In no particular order…

To begin, several local ecologists gave us an introduction to the Pilliga, and their  research work in the forests. Firstly David Paull explained the significance of the Pilliga region, before leading us deep into the forest on site visits to experience the ecosystems first hand. Chris Malam from The Australian Wildlife Conservancy, and Dr Patrick Tap from Forestry Corporation, both gave us a briefing on their use of sound to monitor local wildlife in the Pilliga. In a surprise visit, Pat from the local Gamilaroi mob (after meeting some of us down at the local pub in the evening) dropped by the next morning to welcome us to country, and ended up staying much of the rest of the week.

Dr Michael Towsey demonstrated the remarkable work he and his team are accomplishing in visualising large temporal data sets into beautiful and insightful spectrograms, representing anything from a full day, month or even year of nature sound.

Possibly the world’s only synchronously-calling frog, the Hip-pocket Frog, Assa darlingtoni, has been researched by Dr Michael Mahony, who discussed this unusual vocal behaviour and speculated on why it may have evolved.

The intelligence of birds was highlighted by American author Jennifer Ackerman,  who then enthused about our birdlife and the unusual avian vocal behaviours found in Australia, including duetting, mimicry, and communal calling. In research for her next book, she engaged us in focussed discussion, notebook always at the ready. Meanwhile, the Pied Butcherbirds sang sublimely, Parrots nonchalantly showed off their colours, Apostlebirds and Choughs socialised, and in the CWA yard in the main street of Baradine, a Spotted Bowerbird entertained us all with his energetic attempts at wooing a female.

Rivalling that bowerbird for passion and energy, Jessie Cappadonna enthused about citizen science and the role we can all play in contributing to research, using her project with Bristlebirds as an inspiring example.

Melinda Barrie offered thoughts on nature sound collections from a professional archivists perspective.

Dr Leah Barclay took time from her busy schedule to contribute her broad knowledge of the current state of activity across research and the environmental sonic arts. She spoke about projects from her own Biosphere Soundscapes to that of groups such as the Australian Forum for Acoustic Ecology. As well as bringing a car-load of hydrophones and other exotic equipment to play with, she offered constructive suggestions for the future of AWSRG, such as social media engagement, live streaming and involvement of the AWSRG in upcoming conference events.

Julie Broken-Brow and Lucy Farrow both shared their love of science through their PhD research into bats and the vocalising of Noisy Miners respectively. Julie took us on a nightwalk to listen in to ultrasound vocalisations with Anabat detectors, while Lucy was somewhat ambivalent about whether the pugnacious reputation of miners should be rehabilitated.

Members Tony Baylis and Bob Tomkins both spoke from experience on how to record nature sounds and what to do with them, while Sue Gould took us to hear the birdlife of the Huon Penninsula in Papua New Guinea, and Fred van Gessel took us to Borneo. My wildlife recording skills were more accurately represented by describing how to repair recordings using Izotope software.

In counterpoint to all this, musician Ros Bandt talked about deep listening, and described her artistic process and creative appreciation of the world through sound. It was a session as profound as it was unexpected. She not only whirled our minds with spontaneous and fresh ideas throughout the week, but together with Leah Barclay, created a musical performance on the Saturday evening which was not only delightful, but gave us all a tangible example of the weaving together of natural sound, intense listening, sonic history and new musical expressions.

The music didn’t finish there. The following evening, Vicki Hallett performed the world premiere of two movements of Michael Hannan‘s environmentally inspired “Birdsong Rhapsody No.1” as the composer sat in the audience, plus some of her Elephant Listening Project pieces, and Nicole Carroll played her electroacoustic composition; Rome Point / Becoming Dusk.

On other evenings, Bob Tomkins took us to a New Guinea highland singsing, Jeff Eller showed us his videos of birdlife from outback NSW (and a few of his beloved Alberts Lyrebirds), and Kerry Watson took us swimming with whalesong.

We concluded with a far-reaching discussion about the future of the AWSRG, the general concensus of which was that informality and friendship were a valued context for our gathering, and future aspirations should be tempered by Michael Mahony’s advice to “be careful what you wish for”.

And then, there was time out in the bush… mornings recording birdsong, throwing hydrophones in dams to listen in to underwater insects, comparing equipment, sharing knowledge, and that final, magical evening in which many of us sat silent and entranced as a dozen Glossy Black Cockatoos came in to drink at a bush dam at sunset.

When I reflect on all that we did together (and this is only a summary!), I don’t know how we fitted it all in, and yet we still found time to chat, plan, laugh, relax, share a wine or two, and deepen those new friendships.

Finally, a huge thank you to Janet and Charlie at Camp Cypress, and our caterer Narelle Wood, who looked after us so well.

More photos and audio to be uploaded soon.

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