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Autumnwatch: Ask Chris Watson a question

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Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 16:13 UK time, Tuesday, 12 October 2010

You might not be familiar with Chris Watson, our next guest presenter. But chances are you've appreciated his work across a load of natural history programmes without even realising it. Chris is an acclaimed, BAFTA-winning wildlife sound recordist, responsible for capturing the sounds of the natural world for programmes such as Autumnwatch, Life In The Undergrowth and Life Of Mammals to name just a few.

He's joining us on next week's show to share his expertise and answer your questions about the sounds of autumn wildlife on Unsprung. So is there anything you've always wanted to know about the sounds of nature? What autumn sounds intrigue you or mystify you? Now is the time to ask.


For this year's Autumnwatch, Chris steps in front of the camera to take us on a journey exploring the melodies of waterway wildlife. He'll be following one of his favourite rivers, the River Coquet in Northumberland, from source to sea as it meanders through the orchestral landscape. British rivers teem with life - on the banks, in the water and in the air - and Chris is an expert at capturing these rhythms.

Over the years, Chris and his microphones have travelled the globe archiving the sounds of the natural world. His extensive career spans the last three decades taking him from the microscopic world of Life In The Undergrowth through the vast soundscapes of the savannah in Big Cat Diary, and from Icelandic groaning glaciers to undulating underwater currents.


He's also found time to work on feature films like The Constant Gardener and was once the progressive keyboard player in experimental electronic band Cabaret Voltaire.

As BBC Series Producer Stephen Moss said about him: "Calling Chris a sound recordist is like saying George Best could kick a ball about, or Michelangelo was handy with a paintbrush." So if you want to ask the Michelangelo/George Best of wildlife sound recording a question please post one below.

Watch Autumnwatch on Thursday 21 October to see Chris's audio journey down the river. In the meantime, post your sounds of wildlife questions for Chris below, watch a clip of him in action on Springwatch or listen to his awesome rook soundscape from last year's Autumnwatch.



  • Comment number 1.

    I live in a wooded area and often hear Tawny Owls calling. A couple of nights ago, as well as their usual calls, I also heard a call I'd never heard before. It was a low, almost bubbling sound. I did some internet research and found a site which confirmed that the noise was also made by a Tawny but didn't give much information about why/when the Owls make this unusual sound. Is Chris able to provide some more information please?

    The sound can be heard at the below website: https://www.godsownclay.com/TawnyOwls/Calls/Resources/Warble_mf.mp3


  • Comment number 2.

    My wife suffers from high frequency hearing loss and has done since birth. This means she has never heard birdsong. This week the sound of the nightingale was particularly beautiful but she yet again missed out on this wonderful side of nature. Can Autumnwatch occasionally 'lower the tone' of these recordings or is there anything you can recommend which will help?

  • Comment number 3.

    hi there chris ,i walk my dogs every day at the whitlee windfarm and i have heard these strange noises recntly in a young scots fir trees it sounds like loud screeching and screaming its deffinitly not deer .i had also spotted some white birds with fleks of mibebrown or black through it but only a kwick glance thanks richard

  • Comment number 4.

    Has anybody seen a Wolverine in the Spean Bridge area in Scotland? There is ,or was, one present because i saw it about 3 years ago. Lovely clear day and it ran across the road in front of my car. Impossible you say, but I know what i saw (and my girlfriend) John C.

  • Comment number 5.

    I was just wondering what's the most unexpected or unusual thing Chris has ever recorded and what is his favourite sound from nature?

  • Comment number 6.

    Hi Chris I've enjoyed listening to your sound recordings over the years. My question is:- Male birds of different species are often heard singing, have you recorded any female bird song? if you have could you play some please, if not can you play the other sounds they make, and do both sexes have the same pitch or are they both different, (similar to humans in females having the higher pitch generally speaking).

  • Comment number 7.

    I heard a strange bird call (difficult to describe) from the garden and when I looked I saw a woodcock amongst the leaves, it was Tuesday 12th about 8.15 am. Would it be likely that it came from the woodcock or not, what sound do these birds make?

  • Comment number 8.

    Wildlife sound recording is so tricky - especially for a one-man crew! Can Chris recommend a decent (cheap) audio setup for aspiring wildlife film-makers?

  • Comment number 9.

    Chris - very much looking forward to your contribution - birdsong has to one of the most theraputic sounds in nature but the thing I have never heard is a bat purring - I know they do - honest - is this something it is possible to record, please?

  • Comment number 10.

    Thanks all for your questions for Chris. Please keep them coming in.

    John Colverson: as this is a post about wildlife sound, you'll probably get a better response if you post it on the messageboard. There's plenty of experts over there!

  • Comment number 11.

    What microphones do you like to use best?

    And what recording format produces the best quality of sound?

    Is it true the WAVE is the best file format too? Is it best to edit sound on a PC or Apple Mac?

    Did you do any recording when the UK was a no-fly-zone 'cos of the ash cloud as the sound recordings would have been undisrupted?

  • Comment number 12.

    Are there a lot of wildlife sounds outside the human hearing range in the UK?
    e.g. like done by bats and whales.

    What was your first microphone and recoding equipment? And what do you mostly use today?

  • Comment number 13.

    Please can you try to catch the sound of a hedgehog "clucking"?
    I have heard that female hogs make a clucking tutting sound when feeding babies, an I have heard of hedgehog carers report theirs make a little noise when eating something they really like like dried mealworms.

  • Comment number 14.

    What bird did my dad see in the garden?

    He says it was about the size of a sparrow, yellow streaks on the bottom of its wings and black and white spots on its tail, dark brown on top of head, he seems to think most of the bird was brown? It was seen in the front garden in Gloucestershire knocking the seeds off of a dandelion!!! I suggested a grey wagtail but he recons the tail wasn't as long? I cant find any similar birds on the net that it could be? Are there any migratory birds that it could be? I think that he is just blind and seen a wagtail? he is getting on a bit lol!
    Also do female owls shreak about 10pm at this time of year whilst circling territory? I hear one most nights and it sounds like a squeeky dog toy!

    Thank you
    Rusty Emms

  • Comment number 15.

    Rusty, it could have been a Female Chaffinch or Female Linnet. . .


  • Comment number 16.

    I live in West Yorkshire I have noticed an absence of Blackbirds in my garden and surrounding area. Last year there were plenty of them. Any reason or any ideas?

  • Comment number 17.

    Hey Chris as a sound technology student whose dream is to work for the bbc natural history department capturing location recordings. Do you have any wise words of advice on how I might go about getting this job?
    Matthew Denman
    [Personal details removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 18.

    how do you record bird of prey sounds..... and whats your favorite bird of prey

  • Comment number 19.

    I was in thetford forest the othere day and i see loads of squirels and birds amongst othere things . whats the best way of sneaking around to get the best video of deer . im hoping to get close and see a white stag wich i havent seen yet . keep up the good work . love the show pete

  • Comment number 20.

    Hullo Chris! I too love your work and what you do - great job and great achievements! I have quite a few Q's (although some may duplicate or somewhat overlap with one or two of those above) -

    Particularly regarding nature (and maybe with an autumnal bias?!) - Which sound is your favourite and why and which of your recordings do you feel most proud of and why? Which recording has been the most challenging to achieve (and why!) and which sound would you most like to record (or even hear!) that you haven't yet managed (and again, why!)?
    Also - Where do you LIVE and why? (or maybe, even, would like to live and why?) And where would you recommend that I live to maximise my chances of hearing OWLS calling at night (which I'd love to exchange for the current calls of urban nightowls and other party animals ... I wonder where the lucky person asking Q1 lives ..?). Or where might I alternatively live to regularly enjoy the magical sounds of marshes and bogs etc? (and any chance you could Please play such sounds on AW/Unsprung?!). We were staying on the edge of a SALTMARSH close to SF airport in California last Christmas and my partner signalled to me to crouch very low to listen to the astonishing "squeaking" of the marsh - one of the most evocative sounds I have ever experienced! (along with the mournful calling of curlew etc ... ) Plus, can anyone please advise on which types of creatures and/or processes/mechanisms are responsible for these wonderful noises?? Decomposing plant matter? Emanations (!) from microscopic organisms? Or the mechanical movements of larger creatures? (Or maybe all of these ... and more?!) Nature's music ... Brilliant!!
    Thank you - especially if you or someone can address any of these Q's ... either way, I'm really looking forward to your guest appearance tonight, and to the rest of the show and series generally. Regards, TB/EB.

  • Comment number 21.

    Subject: Peregrine falcon attacking goose.

    Hi, I live and work on the coast in north-west Sutherland and we are very lucky to have the most amazing wildlife on our doorstep. At the moment I am very much enjoying seeing migrating groups of geese and beautiful whooper swans.

    Last week, a large group of geese were flying around in a real panic and to my amazement I saw what could only be a peregrine falcon (due to its size, shape and speed) in hot pursuit. The group split into 3 and the peregrine went for one of the groups, gaining in speed all the time, and managed to split 2 geese off. My jaw nearly hit the ground as I saw (in the distance) the peregrine drop into one of the geese and this goose consequently falling.

    I was wondering if anyone else has ever seen this happen or heard of it. I felt extremely privileged to have seen this happen.

  • Comment number 22.

    A question for Chris Watson,

    Hi Chris... Inspired by the Spingwatch episode where a chap had been filming fish underwater, I want to have ago myself, But... with the prohibitively high cost of quality Hydrophones, is there a cheap and easy way to convert an ordinary omidirectional mic to do the same job??

    Regards Cosper. :@)

  • Comment number 23.

    I am not sure whose area this comes under. Every year from the end of August through to October Ladybirds come to rest on a fence I pass most days. All they do is attach themselves to the wood, then their bodies seem to disintegrate from the inside leaving just a grey looking shell. Is this normal for Ladybirds? Why does it happen like this? I live in Purley, Surrey. The fence is on a main road.

  • Comment number 24.

    Some further, hopeful, Q's for Chris (a very Sound Man indeed!!) -

    What advice (technical, personal or other) would you give to someone wishing to acquire recording skills such as yours, particularly regarding fundamentals and for someone who wished to record for personal rather than professional use? Do you run any courses yourself, either via the BBC or independently, on learning to effectively explore and record sounds, the best type of equipment etc. One of our - erstwhile producer - friends at the BBC (who has also done some private recording work for us) thinks that such courses are generally available from practicing or semi-retired "sound" folk but I haven't managed to properly pursue this yet. Or could you recommend any other courses, or books and equipment, or advise from where one might acquire such guidance? And would you recommend "diving in at the deep end" or a gradual, stage-by-stage type of approach re training and equipment purchase (eg buy the best one can afford at the outset or simply make do with the basics until a certain level of proficiency is achieved)?
    One of the very few lovely sounds in this area comes from the magnificent "Bongs" (chiming the daytime hours from the adjacent dock clock tower) and we would love to have a recording of them to play if we ever manage to move from here (they, plus the birds and the tooting of nearby trains and boats on the Thames provide a wonderful (and essential!) counter to all the myriad other, far less ap-pealing(!) edge of the City sounds ... ). On which note! - how does one isolate the sublime from the rest of the soundscape ...?? (in recording terms, anyway!!)
    I suspect that AW isn't really appropriate for these sort of specific queries but Q's were asked for and I thought that someone might at least be able to provide a few pointers. Thanks anyway and good luck tonight, TB/EB.

    PS - The sonorous sevens have just sounded in the cold night air, resonating over the dark water, right on time ... splendid!

  • Comment number 25.

    How does Chris feel about the use of foley in nature documentaries?

  • Comment number 26.

    hi i was wondering..... what is the the weirdest thing you've heard?

  • Comment number 27.

    why do rocks in a winter roast make so much noise

  • Comment number 28.

    @#24 tedbun: To 'isolate' a sound, you can't beat a parabolic reflector! You can use a discarded or broken satellite dish to experiment with (place any mic. where the sat. receiver 'was,' pointing TOWARDS the centre of the dish), but ideally you would buy a purpose-built one if you're serious.

    As to kit, the digital ZOOM recorders (or similar) are excellent devices: buy one which has an external input so you can use (e.g.) underwater or 'specialist' mics. (like your 'reflector!). Unless you're super-serious, remember to record at 44.1 kHz sampling rate and NOT at 48kHz. This will save you a lot of memory on the device without any quality loss; and quite a lot of audio editing software, and many PC sound cards, don't support 48kHz sampling rate. ;)

    @#22 cosper: You CAN just wrap 'any old mic. in a plastic bag (or a condom if the mic. is small enough). Make CERTAIN that the connector is FULLY waterproofed, and please experiment with a 'disposable' mic. as mistakes invariably ruin the mic. PERMANENTLY.

    @#11 Wildlife Filmer Adam: WAVE format is certainly the best format for recording and editing; you might later mix down to (e.g.) FLAC, Apple Lossless, or even OGG or MP3 if you don't mind a SMALL amount of quality loss.

    Whether you use an Apple or a PC for editing audio is immaterial. Just use whatever you're comfortable with. The important thing is to ensure that the result is usable by the recipient (or your own audio/video software, if that's the only place it's going!).

    PS: I do a lot of audio work for a local radio station here in Edinburgh, and MANY years ago, I attended a BBC training course for Audio Assistants at Wood Norton (before you all ask!). Nowadays, I'm a 'computer guy' mainly.

  • Comment number 29.

    What is your favourite wildlife moment?

  • Comment number 30.

    Hi, I wondered if Chris did any work on an old recording for a BBC Wildlife Magazine free cassette tape, think it was called 'Soothing Sounds' ? very good, still got it somewhere!

  • Comment number 31.

    A question for Chris Watson, as his favourite river is the Coquet.
    A couple of years ago our family were on summer holiday in Northumberland and spent one afternoon on the banks of the River Coquet below Warkworth observing a group of about 40 swans who were behaving in a most extraordinary way. They were rotating themselves in the water in a horizontal position. To watch these birds lying down in the water and rolling over & over was quite an extraordinary sight, which attracted quite a few observers. We did take some photographs but the still photography has done little justice to the activity.
    Can you tell me if this sort of behaviour is usual for swans and why they were doing this strange rolling activity.
    Thank you

  • Comment number 32.

    Dear Chris and other autumnwatch people,

    I watched your program for the first time tonight (I live in Holland), and I was blown away ! Absolutely magnificent in every respect, super quality. There is a weekly "nature" program in Holland ("vroege vogels" = "early birds"), which I also enjoy but it's really quite pathetic compared to your program.
    I'm a (retired) cine cameraman (having worked in Australia for 18 years) and it is for this reason that, apart from the beautifull wildlife footage and sounds, I'm also interested in the gear that is used in your production.
    In my time all the sound recorders were Nagra tape recorders but that's obviously not what you (Chris) were using.
    Most likely some kind of digital recording I suppose, but I'd like to know what the equipment is and how it's recorded (tape,disc,something solid-state ?)
    Thanks for now and congratulations with the wonderful program,
    Rob Sandifort

  • Comment number 33.

    Have you any CDs of your recordings available? Would be great to hear them.

  • Comment number 34.

    @ Neil Hoskins "How does Chris feel about the use of foley in nature documentaries?"

    Yeah - great question. I had no idea this technique was commonplace until reading a magazine article about it recently. I felt thoroughly cheated! The foley sound creators clearly do a very professional job but all the same... They never seem to feature in any of those "making-of" documentary segments strangely enough, and you can kinda see why. If we're not hearing the true sounds of these creatures and their environment we should be informed.

  • Comment number 35.

    Hello Chris.On 21 oct.you recorded sounds near the river Coquet.Later on you recorded in the dark and we heard some tawny owls.But on the background there was a short higher birdsound.I have been hearing these birds for two years in our polder,mostly late at night.Cannot find out what they are.Please can you tell me.Thank you.

  • Comment number 36.

    Nobody seems to be prepared to answer my questions, or contact me, about my INCREDIBLE sighting of a WOLVERINE a few years ago in Scotland. I would have thought that this sighting, although it sounds un-believable, is worth a contact from the Autumnwatch team. My partner and I had a really clear view of the animal and we saw a Wolverine. I have tried and tried to have a serious discussion with someone "in the know" from a variety of organisations, all to no avail. Please contact.
    John Colverson

  • Comment number 37.

    I live on Anglesey and my home is on the perimeter of farmland. For many years we have enjoyed the wildlife here; most especially the numerous species of birds feeding from the feeders and birdtable. Our favourites were the families of pheasants that came to visit our garden from the surrounding fields, some becoming so tame that they would wait at the door in the morning waiting for the food which we provided. Cock pheasants would call loudly to attract our attention. At one point we had an extended family in the garden at the same time. Thirteen in all, including one adult male and one young male. We took photographs of them and over the years have had a number of different males; all characters whom we grew attached to and referred to them as Mr P. This year we have noticed a swift decline in the numbers of pheasant and since early spring when two cock pheasants appeared to have injured legs,
    they have disappeared. Recently one lone female has made her home in the garden, but no other sightings, even in the surrounding fields where during my long walks I look out for signs of them. They have all gone.
    Does anyone know why this would happen. We have considered the possibility of foxes being the cause, but this would not affect the whole population of this area. Possibly some disease which we have noticed affects the finches and doves from time to time. If anyone on Anglesey has also noticed the absence of these wonderful birds, or the Autumnwatch team can supply any answers, I would be interested to know, as I and my family miss our Mr and Mrs P's

  • Comment number 38.

    On Sunday 7th November whilst driving through Corvdale in Shropshire I spotted a sloping field, south facing, that had at least 40no BUZZARDS scattered across it. The 25 acre approx field was of new barley or wheat only about two inches long. The weather was sunny but with a cold wind.
    What would have caused so many buzzrds to congregate in one field when they are supposed to very territorial?
    I could not observe them for more than a minute as some had noticed me and were starting to fly off.
    In the past I have observed upto a dozen buzzards in one location elswere in Shropshire but nothing like this.

  • Comment number 39.

    Hi Chris, are pure white squirrels rare as i have one visiting my garden.
    unfortunately i couldn't locate my camera but managed to get a few grainy pictures with my mobile phone. I live in the South Bucks area so its is obviously an anomaly in the grey species. Hope you can clear this up for me. Many thanks. David


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