Caught by the River

Sounds of the Night: An audio guide to Britain’s nocturnal species

11th June 2012

Recordings from the British Library.
Reviewed by Chris Yates.

Last night, the night of the 5th of June, I went on a moonlit walk through my local woods hoping I might hear a sound that I haven’t heard round here for years, the song of a nightingale. The species has suffered a sad decline over the last two decades and so it was unsurprising that all the woods were silent. There were not even any owls calling because at this time of the year the tawnys, that are not uncommon here, are too busy raising their young to hoot the night away. So, when I got home at three in the morning, switching on my CD player was a bit like leafing through an album of fish portraits after getting back from a biteless day on the river. I needed to hear the evocative sounds of the night to remind me just how magical a nightwalk could be, and the disc I played was a marvelous compilation of nocturnal voices produced by the British Library.

Sounds of the Night is a crystal clear 69 minute recording of all the common and many of the rarest British nightime fauna. It begins with a hauntingly beautiful example of a nightingale’s song, probably the best recording of that sublime song that I’ve ever heard, and continues with the weird call of a nightjar and onward through the night with all the various owls, including the strange penetrating ‘hoo – hoo’ of a long eared owl, a sound I have not heard in a southern English wood for thirty years, though I know places further north where the call regularly echoes through the trees. After the birds, the recordists, all given proper credit in the sleeve notes, turn their microphones towards deer, fox, badger and hedgehog before switching to more high-tech equipment and capturing the amazing echoelocation calls of bats. As we get older our ears become less sensitive to high frequency sounds and so, once we get past forty, the thin voices of bats go way above our radar, but on this disc we can hear serotine, pipistrelle and noctule bats better than we could ever have heard them, even as children.

As the nightime audio journey comes to its end so the disc climaxes with a wondrous dawn chorus, recorded in a very tranquil part of east Sussex in 2010. It’s like a ten minute hallelujiah to the new day with a cuckoo trying to impose his two beat rhythm onto a wild upswelling of song.

As I said, I played this CD last night and, though unintentionally, I timed it perfectly because, when the final track ended, dawn was just breaking and, like a distant echoe, a real dawn chorus was just beginning to sing.

Sounds of the Night is available on CD from the British Library shop.

Nightwalk: A Journey to the Heart of Nature by Chris Yates is on sale in the Caught by the River shop, priced £12.