Anyone who likes to go out into Western European nature for sound recording or listening knows that finding good sites can be a challenge – air traffic and road noise, human overpopulation and wildlife underpopulation; the frustrations are familiar.
But for me, the allure of Sweden as a recording destination has always been strong: I imagined endless forests, a low density of humans and noise, plus a healthy mix of wildlife for European standards. And learning about the Black River sound recording trip, which had its inception in 2017 and was now due for its second instalment in April 2018, I finally had a good opportunity to see and hear it for myself.
Browsing their site, I immediately took a liking to their down-to-earth approach: just join them to a special part of Swedish nature which they know well, and make up your own plan while you’re there. Rent a bike or canoe, or just hike and discover sounds and good recording spots by yourself. And in between these bits of exploration, they will take you to sites deep in the forest and soggy bogs where unique and delicate wildlife events are taking place that time of year. Specifically for April, that meant the western capercaillie and black grouse “leks”: the mating rituals where males try their hardest to impress the ladies.
Spanning just four nights, this was bound to be a packed few days. The trip was organised by Stefan Taylor and Kari Knight, a friendly couple from Britain who love Sweden and know it well. The site is at a spacious and characterful old farmhouse situated next to the titular Black River and surrounded by forests and wetlands. Every evening we were served some delicious food courtesy of Kari, and Stefan would brief us daily about recording opportunities and interesting places nearby.
We had the opportunity to set up microphones at capercaillie leks almost every night. These sites had been discovered by Stefan himself and are traditionally kept under wraps as to not attract hordes of visitors. He only shares them with the small group of people that join him on these trips, and we were always careful to not cause any undue disturbance. The capercaillie is an elusive and quiet bird. Its mating dance is a fragile and obscure event which occurs only for about two weeks each year, where the male is strutting about on the ground while making the strangest clucking and whistling sounds. At night, the males crash-land into the trees nearby their chosen spot, resting before another day of hard work of winning the favours of the females.Capercaillie image credit: Stefan Taylor
While capercaillie leks take place in secluded and mossy areas deep in the forest, the black grouse mating displays happen in the middle of bogs on big open clearings. We set up microphones near one of these sites for one night, with some of us staying behind overnight in the nearby hide to watch the event from a distance. I did not sleep in the hide here nor at the capercaillie sites, as the limited time available meant that I wanted to keep my mornings free to take my other microphone rig elsewhere. As far as complaints go, this was the only downside for me about the Black River trip – the opportunities were too numerous and time too limited to do it all!Black Grouse image credit: RSPB
Sweden’s nature did not disappoint. I loved the variety in sounds of the morning choruses, the soft nighttime air tones of pure natural quietude, and the drawn out reverberations of the forests and lakes that rendered every recording with a lush washed out quality. I learned that unlike in the UK, the forests are considered public land and wild camping is allowed everywhere. There were many beautiful spots that we recorded at, from new growth to old growth forests, frog-filled lakes and wild boar feeding stations, but my personal highlight was taking out a canoe onto the river and mounting one of my microphone rigs on the front, slowly paddling towards sounds that took my interest.
And importantly, the other people on this trip were perfect company, all of them sound recordists, artists, designers and nature enthusiasts in their own right, eager to share information and discuss wildlife observations, with plenty of geeking out over gear in between. I feel like I’ve made a few new friends out of this trip. Moreover, it all left me wanting for more, and I am highly likely to sign up again next year or at least to come back to Sweden for more recording in the future.