SOC Annual Conference – a speaker’s eye view

The Club’s 2023 annual get-together took place on the weekend of 24-26 November at the Atholl Palace Hotel in Pitlochry. Over 100 birdwatchers from across the country came together to hear a programme of talks by experts on the theme of the acoustic world of birds. One such expert, Alan Dalton, reflects on his experience of the conference.

Earlier this year, I was kindly invited to attend the annual conference of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club (SOC) as a speaker, given this year’s theme was all things bird sounds related. The photo on the right shows Schiehallion, site of an organised outing on Saturday morning, a simply stunning location in every way...

After making all due preparation and pulling together a slideshow of Swedish bird sound, I arrived at the conferencel on the Friday evening, just in time to catch a wonderful opening talk by the Club’s Librarian, Rosie Filipiak. During the presentation, newly digitized sound recordings from the 1960's were played. It was wonderful to listen to such a window into the past, with the songs of species such as Eurasian Skylark featuring heavily. As I listened, I was keenly aware of how the recorder, who has since passed, might have felt about a room full of birders enjoying his field recordings some 70 years later. I also pondered how interesting it would be to return to the very locations those recordings were made, upon the same date, and compare the audio files for species diversity and numbers. Such is the legacy of recorded audio, which will remain into the future, long after those who have recorded it have disappeared into the ether. Incidentally, these newly digitized files are now available online through the British Library sound archive.

The second talk on Friday evening was by radio producer and fellow sound artist Steve Urquhart. The talk dealt with an intriguing project, whereby recordings of birds were made available to inmates within the Scottish prison system and their reactions to the said recordings were in turn recorded. It was fascinating to hear how the various sounds of wild birds were received. The evening came to a close after both talks and I retired early in the wonderful Atholl Palace Hotel, tired after a long day’s travel.

Wildlife Acoustics' Song Meter Mini acoustic device

The event sponsor, Wildlife Acoustics, was exhibiting at the conference and I was very interested to find the new acoustic device Song Meter Mini on display. This new device looks to be a winner; a built-in battery lid for six lithium batteries, a new hinged lid, and slimline feel. The microphones remain the same, with the option to add a second mic to record in stereo still an option. The device is easily pre-programmed by interfacing with the company's app and will have an impressive battery life of over 1,200 hours in the field.

After an early and rather full breakfast at the hotel on the Saturday, I then availed of one of the organized conference outings. The chosen hotspot was Schiehallion, the hoped-for result, Black Grouse! The outing was led by SOC member Ptolemy McKinnon, who was a wonderful guide who had obviously done his homework. On arrival, the vista was quite simply stunning – a postcard vista of the Scottish Highlands. The small group was led up a gentle incline, with species such as Redpoll, Eurasian Siskin, Wren, Robin and Stonechat noted along the path. After a couple of kilometres, however, the real prize was eventually picked up, with two male Black Grouse perched on a metal gate! The views were nice, slightly against the light, but at one point a bird turned and raised its lyred tail for all to see, before both birds flew off downhill. A short while later, their calls gave away their location and several birds were located on the ground, The views were excellent at this point, culminating in the flock taking to the air, no less than 17 males in all. It made for quite a remarkable sight and the image of the flock moving against the backdrop of the highlands will remain lodged in my memory for a long time. More was to follow, with at least five females showing well in flight over the course of the morning, and a single Red Grouse, which flew past the group and gave everyone an excellent view. This was my first Red Grouse in thirty years and I enjoyed the moment hugely! A further pit stop at a picturesque local loch to take in a family party of Whooper Swan also included a welcome bonus in the form of Common Crossbill. Soon we headed back to the hotel, buoyed after an incredibly enjoyable morning in the field.

Above; I was delighted to get this short recording of a Red Grouse, the first time I have recorded the species. As always, it's difficult to record when out with a large group of people but I was happy enough with this result.

Above; A recording of a pair of Eurasian Bullfinch, which were giving very quiet calls as they fed in some low cover. A lot of excellent work has been done in this area to re-wild, with many Birch and Alder saplings planted on the lower slopes of this stunning area.

Sound recording Red Grouse in a truly majestic setting

The first speaker on the Saturday, after a fine lunch at the hotel, was Bob Planqué, one of the founders of xeno-canto. Bob delivered an interesting talk on the origins of the platform, its growth over the years, and outlined the plans for the future of the resource. I was interested to hear of plans to roll out a new land mammal library, which should prove very interesting indeed.

Simon Gillings gave a very informative talk on acoustic monitoring and automated identification of nocturnal bird calls, as he has been working on a new automated system for the BTO. The system is still a work in progress but early results have been encouraging and almost 50 species can now be detected by the software. 

RSPB’s Sophie Bennet delivered a fine talk on her considerable efforts to monitor populations of Storm Petrels by acoustic detection. It was fascinating to learn that acoustic monitoring will soon allow for population trends to be accurately assessed for the first time ever, solely due to acoustic survey methods. Until very recently, these species’ nocturnal habits, difficult to reach breeding locations and safety issues for surveyors operating in darkness meant that data was patchy at best. It is remarkable how much information about population, overall numbers, breeding success and long-term trends can be extrapolated from properly organized acoustic surveys. 

Alasdair Reid then took to the stage to deliver a very interesting account of the rediscovery of breeding European Nightjar in the Scottish Borders. The species had become increasingly rare over recent decades, with just one or two records annually. Alasdair and his team set out to acoustically survey carefully targeted areas, based on historical records at first. Initial results were successful, with a small number of territorial males located in the first year of the study. Further efforts the following season resulted in uncovering successful breeding in the study area – a wonderful result for the project. 

On Saturday evening, there was a fantastic dinner event organized, followed by an entertaining after-dinner presentation (including recordings from the SOC archives featuring eminent ornithologists’ after-dinner speeches from the 1960s!) and a traditional Scottish ceilidh. The dinner was superb and it was a pleasure to chat to the other people at the table, the conversation was rich and varied and there was a great deal to be learned from the many knowledgeable people present. 

Watching a group of 17 male Black Grouse at Schiehallion - a wonderful result on a glorious day...

Magnus Robb kicked Sunday’s proceedings into gear with a presentation on the upcoming Sound Approach book on waders. The audience got a preview on the large conference screens of a handful of Killian Mullarney's new plates, which are quite stunning, as one would expect. As one would also expect, Magnus’ audio recordings were of the highest quality, with his obvious knowledge and insight clear for all to see. There were plenty of humorous anecdotes, tales from far flung locations, and wonderful audio to accompany them.

Carlos Abrahams was next up, detailing a wide overview of his work as a consultant with Baker Consultant's, a company which employs acoustic survey techniques across a wide number of fields – not only bird surveys for rare species such as Nightjar but also biodiversity studies in freshwater habitats, employing hydrophones as well as soil sampling using contact microphones. Some of the audio was quite remarkable and otherworldly, such as the recording of large Earthworms making their way to and from the surface. This was a lecture that really informed the true scope and potential of acoustic surveying, with incredibly useful and accurate data resulting from the method, if carried out correctly.

It then came down to me to deliver the penultimate talk of the conference - a presentation detailing many of the wonderful sounds of birds from here in Sweden. It was great to hear my recordings through the powerful surround speakers and the talk seemed to be well received by the audience. 

It was back to Scotland for the final presentation, delivered by well-known Scottish sound recordist Derek McGinn.  Derek gave a whirlwind tour of his many birding experiences in Scotland over the past 50 years, with some lovely images and sound recordings from the Hebrides in the west, to the coasts in the east. There were some lovely recordings of key Scottish species such as Ptarmigan, Dunlin, Corncrake and Dotterel. Following this, SOC President Ruth Briggs wrapped up the conference by thanking all those involved in the event. 

The stonewall structure of old sheep crofters here, where sheep were formerly housed, a small glimpse into the past...

The village of Pitlochry, a wonderful little village, nestled into the hills of Scotland, just south of the Cairngorms National Park

Magnus Robb, of the Sound Approach team, delivering a wonderful talk on the upcoming book detailing wading birds

A last image here of Schiehallon. This area held a few Bullfinch, Common Buzzard and three female Black Grouse

All too quickly, the weekend was over and it was time to travel home to Sweden. It was a wonderful weekend and tremendous to meet so many people with similar interests. The hospitality shown by all involved with the SOC was excellent. Many thanks to all involved.

Alan Dalton
Sound Recordist, Sweden

Photos © Alan Dalton

A full write-up of the conference will be published in the March 2023 issue of Scottish Birds