Char­lie Portlock asks us to lis­ten as well as look at the coun­try­side around us

Air Gunner - - Contents -

Char­lie tells us how to in­ter­pret the sounds of the wood­land to our ad­van­tage. Keep your ears tuned in!

If you have ac­cess to the in­ter­net please visit www.char­lies­ri­ to hear the fol­low­ing sounds in or­der as you read the ar­ti­cle below.

In the UK, we’re for­tu­nate not to have to worry about the risk of en­coun­ter­ing a large car­ni­vore whilst camp­ing in the woods. How­ever, the same couldn’t be said for Jim Cor­bett, the le­gendary Anglo-In­dian hunter of man- eat­ing leop­ards and tigers. When he was called in to stalk an old or wounded an­i­mal that had found a taste for hu­man flesh, he needed to keep his wits about him. In fact his wits alone would never have been enough, and he knew it. For his per­sonal safety he re­lied heav­ily upon his abil­ity to in­ter­pret the com­mu­ni­ca­tion of other jun­gle an­i­mals, and by lis­ten­ing to the calls of birds, deer and other prey species, he was able to track in­di­vid­ual tigers as they moved through the land­scape. A use­ful skill when try­ing to avoid a sur­prise en­counter with a 200kg preda­tor.

When we’re hunt­ing, we can use th­ese same skills to deepen our con­nec­tion with the land­scape and to de­ter­mine how ‘set­tled’ an area is. In the woods, there are scores of sto­ries un­fold­ing all around us and we have only to tune into th­ese sounds to dis­cover an­i­mated ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes be­tween song­birds, crows re­veal­ing the lo­ca­tion of a rap­tor, or squir­rels track­ing a fox as it stalks their brethren on the wood­land floor.


All an­i­mals in­her­ently un­der­stand the dis­tress calls of other crea­tures, in just the same way that the jar­ring sound of a cry­ing baby is uni­ver­sal to all hu­mans. In an­i­mals this is known as interspecific com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Hu­mans do some­thing sim­i­lar when we see some­body talk­ing to their friend/ lover/mother in a dif­fer­ent lan­guage; we in­stinc­tively un­der­stand the spirit and in­ten­tion of what they’re say­ing with­out need­ing to know the ex­act con­tent. In­ci­den­tally, the same is true for foot­fall.

If you think back to the house that you grew up in, or even the one you live in now, it’s likely that you’re able to tell who’s mov­ing around the house from the sound of their feet. The same is true in the woods; un­less we’re very quiet and very slow, it will be ob­vi­ous to ev­ery­body what we are and where we’re go­ing.

All mam­mals and birds com­mu­ni­cate with their own species in some way, and warn­ing calls are the ones that we’re most likely to recog­nise. All of th­ese ini­tial alarms share sim­i­lar char­ac­ter­is­tics that make them dis­tinct from the sounds used in so­cial or ter­ri­to­rial com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and once you’ve learned to recog­nise them you’ll prob­a­bly start hear­ing them ev­ery­where. They’re of­ten brash, high pitched and are nor­mally delivered in short, ag­gres­sive and un­struc­tured bursts.

The fol­low­ing sounds are some of the most com­mon alarm calls to be heard in broadleaved Bri­tish wood­land and within many north­ern, tem­per­ate forests.


“Look out! A preda­tor is near!”

The kuk is a short, bark-like call nor­mally delivered stac­cato fash­ion in rapid groups ‘ kuk kuk kuk - kuk kuk’ and serves as a gen­eral alarm with two dis­tinct pur­poses; firstly, to alert other squir­rels that there’s a dan­ger­ous preda­tor nearby, and se­condly, to let that preda­tor know it has been spot­ted and that it’s wast­ing its en­ergy through con­tin­ued pur­suit. For the hunter, it means that you’ve been de­tected. How­ever, pro­vided that you sit silent and still, they’ll nor­mally re­sume their ac­tiv­ity in any­thing from two to 20 min­utes.

The Quaa

“I can still see the preda­tor but it looks like it’s leav­ing.”

The quaa is es­sen­tially a longer kuk, the sound sit­ting some­where be­tween a wet kiss and a dis­grun­tled meow. You can hear some­thing very close to it when you squeeze the trig­ger on a spray bot­tle of kitchen cleaner or some sim­i­lar prod­uct. For the hunter the quaa means that what­ever you’re do­ing (or not do­ing) is work­ing and that you’ll soon be try­ing to keep your sights steady on the kill zone.

The Moan

“I think the preda­tor has gone, but I’m be­ing loud to let it know that I’ve seen it and that I’m not com­ing down.”

Un­like the kuk and the quaa, this call has a less in­tense, tonal qual­ity very sim­i­lar to the soft whistling chirp of a song­bird and it’s quite un­mis­tak­able. It’s of­ten used alone

in re­sponse to aerial threats, but has also been shown to sig­nal a fur­ther re­duc­tion in the alert level. For the im­pa­tient hunter, this is gen­er­ally a good sound and un­less there’s a rap­tor over­head, it means that the area will very soon be re­turn­ing to nor­mal ac­tiv­ity.

Cock Pheas­ant

Cock pheas­ants are noisy birds even when brows­ing, but their star­tled crow and splut­ter­ing flight alarm will make ev­ery­thing within earshot sit up and pay at­ten­tion. If you move slowly and pause of­ten, then you can of­ten pass them with­out reg­is­ter­ing as a threat – well worth it, es­pe­cially when stalk­ing deer. The dis­tinc­tive male, ter­ri­to­rial, crow­ing call, nor­mally ac­com­pa­nied by the loud ruf­fling of feathers, is a good in­di­ca­tor that the bird is re­laxed and you’re not caus­ing it much dis­tur­bance.

If you strug­gle to move through wood­land with­out putting a cock pheas­ant on edge, then you prob­a­bly need to slow down. They’re not eas­ily spooked and are a good an­i­mal on which to hone your ba­sic stalk­ing skills.


If there was an award for the bird with the great­est sound-to-size ra­tio, then the black­bird would def­i­nitely be a con­tender. Its at­trac­tive song be­lies an im­pres­sive vo­cal abil­ity that’s all too ev­i­dent in the pierc­ing vol­leys of ra­zor- edged chirps heard as it leads you away from its shrub-level nest. They’re breed­ing now, so ex­pect plenty of ac­tiv­ity.


As they live and work well above the shrub layer, wood­peck­ers – both green and great spot­ted – are less likely to be wor­ried by your pas­sage than song­birds. How­ever, it’s in­ter­est­ing to be aware of the alarm calls of both species be­cause they can pro­vide a win­dow to how your progress is be­ing viewed from above. Both de­liver sin­gle, high-pitched pips that in­crease in fre­quency with the prox­im­ity of the threat.


The Jay is a wood­land- dwelling corvid and is no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to spot, dart­ing as it does be­tween ar­eas of thick cover. Its alarm call is a fa­mil­iar harsh rat­tle, sim­i­lar to a mag­pie, but louder and uglier and is nor­mally given on the move. Like all corvids th­ese birds have ex­cel­lent eye­sight and there’s not a huge amount you can do to avoid de­tec­tion com­pletely. Thank­fully, they’re gen­er­ally quite noisy and squir­rels don’t seem to be both­ered too much by them.


Tail flick­ing and flag­ging also form an im­por­tant part of preda­tor alarms, par­tic­u­larly when paired with vo­cal­i­sa­tions. Although this topic is still be­ing stud­ied, it’s pos­si­ble that the com­bi­na­tion of dif­fer­ent tail sig­nals and calls could al­low squir­rels to com­mu­ni­cate the spe­cific na­ture of a threat (aerial or ter­res­trial) as well as its lo­ca­tion. In ad­di­tion, the white tails found on rab­bits and fal­low deer can alert other an­i­mals to danger nearby and it’s thought that the wood­pi­geon’s white col­lar serves a sim­i­lar pur­pose; a rapidly re­treat­ing white blob is ob­vi­ous to all crea­tures.


If you’re quiet and well con­cealed, then af­ter about 20 min­utes or so you’ll be­gin to hear the trees and shrubs come back to life as squir­rels and song­birds re­turn to their daily rou­tine. I’ve had wood mice crawl over my boot, and have of­ten watched pheas­ants, rab­bits and even foxes pass al­most within reach. One of the most re­as­sur­ing sounds for wood­land crea­tures is the soft coo­ing of roost­ing wood­pi­geon. As many read­ers will know, th­ese birds are eas­ily dis­turbed and if they’re off guard then the rest of the woods will be too.

Un­der­stand­ing the sound of a calm, undis­turbed wood­land is use­ful in pro­vid­ing feed­back on how well con­cealed you are, as well as en­abling you to mea­sure how long you might have to wait for your quarry to make an ap­pear­ance. Within all wood­land, there are sounds that an­i­mals treat as cues to sig­nal the ‘all clear’, prompt­ing them to re­turn to nor­mal ac­tiv­ity. Alarm is cu­mu­la­tive and is heard by all crea­tures. The calmer the sound­scape, the more likely you are to en­counter wildlife of all shapes and sizes, whether you in­tend to bag them or not. Deep lis­ten­ing is one of hu­man kind’s old­est skills and it’s well worth re­dis­cov­ery. Once you be­gin to read the sonic land­scape, it will be dif­fi­cult to ex­pe­ri­ence the woods in quite the same way again. Good luck out there. Char­lie.

There’s talk in the trees ...

You should be able to pass a pheas­ant with­out caus­ing alarm

Jays are noisy and highly alert

Squir­rel lan­guage is well worth de­ci­pher­ing

Wood­pi­geon are the sen­tinels of the trees. If they’re calm, ev­ery­thing else will be too

Mak­ing use of shadow is al­ways a good idea

Wood­peck­ers are less wary of hu­mans than most birds

Black­birds nor­mally nest near in the shrub lay and are hard to avoid

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