I wiggled my toes, watching as my hiking boots traced patterns in the orange sand of the Australian mulga. Australia…I was in Australia! Yet, for being on the other side of the planet, Australia was less otherworldly than I expected.
What did feel otherworldly was being a sound recordist. Here I was traversing the wilderness and at times I saw no one save for those on our expedition. All at once, I felt like an explorer, as if I’d just disembarked from the HMS Beagle. Though we didn’t uncover a new scientific theory, as Darwin did, the recordings from our expedition will outlive us. The Macaulay Library’s audio collection will allow a multitude of questions to be answered in the future related to the evolution of birdsong, the behavioral functions of birdsong, and more. The collection can also help us learn more about our current biodiversity, by helping to distinguish new, previously unrecognized species that may look alike but sound very different, such as the Torresian Crow and Little Crow.
I had done fieldwork for research before. I was used to the hours on the road, the early mornings, and the thrown-together meals. But fieldwork was never as magical as this. We were on a hunt for beauty. Every morning, after warming ourselves with a bowl of oatmeal, we’d go off our separate ways, microphones in hand and return with treasures: the beauty of birdsong captured for all the world to hear. One such morning, I wove my way around a clump of acacia trees, holding the parabola away from the branches. For a moment, the only sounds were of my footsteps on the sand, the wind rustling through the trees, and the barely perceptible highway in the distance. And then it happened. The sweet sound of a Crested Bellbird broke through the cloudless sky. I froze, pointed the mic towards the trees with all of my energy focused on keeping very still. I held my breath and stilled my thoughts as if the bird would hear and be spooked.
On this expedition, I learned that ornithology isn’t only about academia, it’s also about collecting media, outreach, and ecotours. During this trip, we recorded more than 100 species, 15 of which were brand new for the Macaulay Library. And though my footprints in the orange sand have long blown away, my memories of this trip will last my whole life, and the recordings from it even longer.
In closing, one of my favorite recordings—the piercing song of a Black Honeyeater.