Sunday 25 February 2024

An Evening Out

I can rarely be bothered to attend birding-related 'events', so Friday evening was rather out of character. However, the title - In Conversation with Magnus Robb and Killian Mullarney - was hard to resist. And as the venue was just down the road, at Wareham in Dorset, well...

L to R: Lucy McRobert, Magnus Robb, Mark Constantine, Killian Mullarney; in the foreground, rear views of Paul Morton and René Pop.

It was basically a showcase of some of the work carried out by the Sound Approach team, and 'in conversation' aptly describes the evening's vibe. Just in case you don't know, a brief sketch of the main protagonists...

Magnus Robb is a bird sound-recording nutter who conveys his passion with infectious enthusiasm. In 2007 he responded to an email from me about a suspected Iberian Chiffchaff discovered by Steve on Beer Head. I had attached a handful of sound clips extracted from a video that Karen Woolley made, and Magnus helpfully confirmed the ID for us, at the same time introducing me to the term 'plastic song'. He lives in Portugal, and for some reason I had always assumed he was Dutch or Scandinavian or something, so the Scottish accent was a bit of a surprise. Among other roles, he looks after the ever-growing Sound Approach library of recordings.

Killian Mullarney is one of my bird-illustrator heroes. I first encountered his work 40 years ago in a seminal BB paper about the identification of stints and 'peeps' by himself and Peter Grant. The plate of Black-tailed Godwits in the photo above (from the upcoming Sound Approach book on waders) is an example of his astonishing skill, though anyone who owns a copy of the Collins Bird Guide will already be familiar with it.

Mark Constantine is a keen Dorset birder, based in Poole. He is also a founder of Lush Cosmetics and, along with Arnoud van den Berg and René Pop (co-founders in 1979 of the Dutch Birding Association, and both present in the audience), founder of The Sound Approach. His fascination with bird sounds (along with the ability to facilitate expeditions and research) has resulted in a lot of new knowledge in this area.

I took a few photos through the evening, but they're a bit samey. Still, one or two are worth a look, if only for the screen in the background...

Magnus telling us about a close encounter with Little Curlews, or Little Whimbrels if you're stuck in the past like me.

Killian inadvertantly imitating a Little Curlew in flight, as depicted on the screen. His tale involved mucking up a golden opportunity to capture the bird's song by forgetting to switch on the recorder. I could empathise.

Those two Little Curlew stories took place in Australia and Outer Mongolia respectively, and one aspect which came through strongly during the evening was the profligate consumption of aviation fuel involved in the Sound Approach endeavours. And once again I found myself at odds with how some of the 'birding community' goes about things. Sigh...

So yes, a fascinating evening - very much so - but...

Anyway, a nice bonus was meeting David Darrell-Lambert, who plonked down next to me. Though a lot younger than me I was aware of his name from my London birding days, and more recently from Twitter. And through him I met Nick Hopper, a Wareham-based nocmig enthusiast. Again, a name I was familiar with, Nick has been at it since 2011. He has three Ortolans to his credit, one of which occurred while he was listening live. Not envious at all, I gripped him off with my Night Heron and two Stone-curlews. I thoroughly enjoyed chatting with Nick after the event. Like me, he gets pretty excited about the amazing discoveries you make through nocmig recording, and cannot understand why so many birders just don't seem to get it. I've heard the criticism a number of times: 'You don't actually hear the birds as they call; it's all done from analysing a recording the next morning, or the next week, which means you can't count them, can you? So what's the point?' Nick and I were very much in agreement on exactly what the point is. Ah well, their loss.

Mind you, it was evident that Mark Constantine isn't particularly enthusiastic about the idea of analysing nocmig recordings. Listening live, yes, that's okay, and he was clearly delighted to share the story (and play the recording) of his May 2020 Night Heron, the first record for Poole Harbour in 30 years. Mine was coincidentally a month later. Like Mark, initially I didn't know what it was (he identified his bird as Grey Heron, and Magnus put him right) but I'll bet my surprise and pleasure at discovering my bird's true identity was no less intense than his had been. Anyway, Mark's opinions in this area mean that the nocmig section of the Sound Approach website - brilliant though it is - is not so much of a priority for him and hasn't been updated for a while. And, as in any company, I guess what the boss says, goes. Which maybe gives an insight into how the level of effort made in new areas of learning and discovery could easily be subject to the whims of a few wealthy and influential individuals. Possibly.

Talking of nocmig reminds me...

Seán Ronayne is an Irish birder who got into sound recording during the first COVID-19 lockdown in April 2020, like I did. However, he has taken it to another level. Among other things, his nocmig discoveries are simply fascinating. One example involves Yellow Wagtail, a scarce migrant in the Republic of Ireland, with normally around 20-30 records a year. Seán's nocmig tally of 70-odd (crack-of-dawn birds) in an autumn was therefore something of a revelation. And did you know how much mimicry there is in a Whitethroat's song, and what that can tell you about its migratory route? No, me neither. I heartily recommend his 'Wild Mind' talk, on YouTube HERE. It's not only about nocmig, and seeing a young birder get really enthusiastic about his topic is just 100% feelgood. So what are you waiting for?


  1. Regardless of the topic, gatherings like yours rarely enthuse me - until I am there. No matter what the subject, it's the side chatter that counts and inspires. You make new contacts and do a bit of low-quay one upmanship because we are all competitive. It sound's like you had a great time.

    As regards to the carbon footprint involved in collecting science, can that be justified? If we all rely on a bicycle to learn about the planet we wouldn't get far. As for Space and the cost of sending rockets up, well, it's a big discussion.

    I saw the YouTube thing the other day, breath taking. Is it telling of it's journey or just picking up tunes along the way? Ask a scientist and a poet to get two views.

    An interesting blog again damn you, I've had to use my brain on a Monday before my second coffee ;o)

    1. Ha ha! Thanks Dave. Yes, it was one of those evenings that left me with more questions than answers. But I'm glad I went.

  2. Relying on a bicycle to learn about the planet? Well, according to my Garmin report, I've cycled around the planet at least twice In less than two years! However, the furthest I've travelled away from my house is a distance the proverbial Crow could fly in 50 minutes.
    Indoor bike and watch the TV as I go. Good enough for me.

  3. Hi Gavin,
    I have been following your blog for a few years now and always enjoy reading your posts. I was sufficiently inspired by your nocmig posts to give it a go. I soon discovered two things. Firstly, manually analysing the audio files is very time consuming; secondly, I am not very good at identifying bird calls. In an attempt to resolve these issues I went in search of an AI based solution. To my surprise I found two solutions that have been of great assistance to me. You may be aware of them, but in case you aren't I thought I would mention them to you. First is Chirpity ( ), an application specifically written to assist with the identification of calls in UK nocmig recordings. The second solution is BirdNet Pi ( ) a dedicated bird call logging and identification system that can be integrated into Birdweather. I have recently installed a BirdNet Pi system in my garden, if you are interested in having a look you can access it here:
    I live in Australia so you will hear some species that are very different from what you get in the UK, plus a few familiar calls. If you need any further information please contact me by email at
    Best regards,

    1. Hi Roman, many thanks for posting this message. I am surprised and delighted that my efforts with nocmig here in Dorset have helped encourage someone to give it a try on the other side of the globe! I would never have foreseen that, and am grateful that you let me know. 👍

      Funnily enough, Chirpity was recently mentioned on the nocmig WhatsApp group chat but, as I'm not recording currently, I didn't pay much attention. However, you have prompted me to investigate. Ta for the links, I'll have a look...