Dawn Chorus Day 2021

Here’s my contribution to International Dawn Chorus Day 2021, recorded from our front garden in Newcastle upon Tyne between 4:30am and 6:30am this morning, Sunday 2nd May 2021.

Whenever I step outside so early in the morning, I feel like an alien in a foreign land. At this hour, it’s a fallacy to think that such familiar territory is my domain. It belongs to the wild creatures and that’s that — the moment I set foot in the garden, I’m on borrowed land and borrowed time.

Thank you to all the birds in attendance, not least the vocal blackbird who got the intricate cacophony underway as soon as I’d set up my equipment and vacated the area.

You’ll hear them revelling in the relative peace of the city, as if taking a sound bath.

But the balance shifts as the recording progresses. The birdsong gradually becomes suppressed by the sonic pollution of human life.

Thank goodness they’ll be back in the morning. At least I hope so, anyway…

As always, I recommend wearing good quality headphones to enjoy the finer details of this recording, along with the strong sense of surroundings that it should generate within your brainbox:

Sonic Sketching

I’m one of those people who thinks they’re not very good at drawing. I’m also aware that may not be true but, thankfully, I derive the same kind of catharsis from making audio recordings, so that’s what I do instead.

Cutting clips from a master recording and building them into a new piece is, for me, like making pencil marks on paper — individual strokes to build a bigger picture, forming a distinct image in the mind.

I find it a very relaxing discipline, not least because of the enjoyment I hope people will derive from the final piece, especially if listening through high quality headphones or speakers.

The latter is important in order to hear the full range of sounds and to get an accurate sense of the environment created by the placement of the microphones.

By making such sketches, I hope to take listeners on a flowing sonic journey, full of detail and intrigue.

Aboard the Tobermory lifeboat (photograph by Hen)

Over the last year or so, I’ve been pondering how to create a more robust high quality stereo setup to carry aboard lifeboats again when the time comes — the problem being, that nothing really exists on the market (as far as I can tell) to properly space and windshield the tiny pair of DPA 6060 microphones that I like to use for my field recordings.

All-weather lifeboats are brutally powerful utilitarian vessels, which eat wind and waves for breakfast. They are a sound recordists dream and nightmare rolled into one.

Roaring engines, crashing waves and howling wind is an incredible combination when you get it right but a painfully shapeless mush if you get it wrong.

Here’s the short film I made in 2017 aboard the Tobermory Severn class lifeboat using the recordings I was making in the photograph above:

Furthermore, it’s simply no good trying to carry delicate equipment which might get damaged or cause an injury within such a highly nautical environment.

So, I cobbled together a new rig last Saturday using equipment I had already but repurposing it with the intended scenario in mind. The Lego figure is not part of the rig, of course — he/she’s there to illustrate how small the amazing microphones are!

Once built, I was eager to get on and test it in the fortuitously windy conditions in the garden (a coastal test will have to wait until the ‘stay local’ restrictions are relaxed).

I only intended to record for 20 minutes but there was so much going on that I didn’t hit ‘stop’ until 3 hours later.

The final 51m 27s recording consists of 70 clips from that master recording cut together chronologically. By the time you reach the end, I’m sure you’ll agree it has indeed been quite a journey.

As I cut those clips together, though, one thing really struck me. The sonic environment on our own doorstep is incredibly stressful for the wildlife that share the space with us humans.

Listen carefully and you’ll hear that the birds are in constant competition with the myriad of synthetic sounds.

At times, it seems like it’s very difficult for them to be heard, yet still they battle on.

This observation put me in mind of a phenomenal recording chosen by Isabella Tree as one of her Desert Island Discs in 2019.

The sound of nightingales and bombers on the night of the Mannheim raid in 1942 is one of the most emotive and profound recordings I’ve ever heard.

You can hear an abridged version from the 31m15s mark on BBC Sounds or listen to the full recording here (thank you to Iain Shaw for bringing this to my attention):

I also like Isabella’s thoughts on the recording:


“Somehow it gives me hope that, whatever human beings do, nature will try and respond and do its absolute utmost to see it though and to bounce back.”

— Isabella Tree speaking with Lauren Laverne on Desert Island Discs, 24 November 2019

Anyway, here’s my new sonic sketch with a loose running order below (feel free to share your thoughts at the bottom of this post too).

As I mentioned earlier, you will need good high quality headphones or speakers to get the best experience from the recording. People often ask me what I mean by that. I’m sure those with more formal training would have other recommendations but I still love my Audio-Technica MX40 headphones.

I’ve been using for around 6 years, so I doubt they’re available new but something along those lines will doubtless fit the bill:


Listen out for (in order of appearance)…

  • My intro
  • Distant motorway traffic throughout
  • Birdsong
  • Sirens
  • Vehicles passing on the main road nearby
  • A woodpecker
  • A woman singing in the distance
  • Somebody doing DIY
  • Leaves rustling in the wind
  • A dog barking
  • Birds close to the microphones
  • People chatting as they walk by
  • Distant raucous singing and shouting
  • Somebody calling out ‘Jack!’ [different Jack]
  • Birdsong like sci-fi laser shooters
  • An aeroplane high overhead
  • Wood pigeons
  • Birds ‘displaying’ to each other
  • A creature walking close to the microphones
  • The sound of tiny wings flitting about nearby
  • Magpies
  • A van passing
  • Wind high in the trees
  • Bassy music booming from a car
  • An insect passing close to the microphones
  • A helicopter passing overhead
  • Car doors closing
  • A neighbour doing some gardening and moving pots around
  • Distant screaming
  • The birds returning when my neighbour heads inside
  • The wind gusting more strongly
  • A heavier duty helicopter
  • Me returning to check on the equipment and take a photograph
  • Gulls overhead
  • Ducks overhead
  • A motorbike buzzing about accompanied by a helicopter
  • The tinkling of dogs’ collars
  • Our front door closing
  • The evening chorus, including a very close blackbird
  • Car horns
  • Passers-by with a suitcase on wheels
  • Collecting the equipment

…and all of this happened in just three hours. An urban environment sure is hectic, even in times like these.

Yard Life

Chicken Hawk by Jack Lowe

Lockdown 3.0 is nowhere near as quiet as Lockdown 1.0, particularly in our back yard. Listen out for our chickens peacefully pecking away at their food and a myriad of other feathered friends flitting about the neighbourhood, all set against the background hum of city life.

As always, good quality headphones or speakers recommended to fully enjoy the sonic experience:

Portrait of a Roundabout

Swan, Billy Mill and Cowgate — when strung together, these names could perhaps be mistaken for the title of an obscure new advertising agency.

Instead, if you ask a Geordie to name three roundabouts, I expect those are the names that would spring to mind first.

Hen, an old pal of mine, recently asked me if I’d make a photograph of Cowgate Roundabout, which lies at the northern end of Newcastle’s central motorway.

Even though it’s certainly a local institution, this could be perceived as a slightly odd request. There is, however, a simple reason behind it…

You see, when Hen was only fifteen years old, his father — Jimmy Henderson — passed away.

Jimmy used to work for Newcastle City Council and one of the only lasting relics of that time is his contribution to the construction of Cowgate Roundabout.

Hen even retrieved this treasured print of the construction crew, taken in the late 1960s just before work began:

The Cowgate Roundabout Construction Crew

The Cowgate Roundabout Construction Crew

Jimmy Henderson, one of the Newcastle City Council team who constructed the Cowgate Roundabout

Jimmy Henderson, smiling away in the middle of this crop…

It recently transpired that a £3m improvement plan has been given the green light — a plan that includes the removal of Cowgate Roundabout as we know it today.

With works due to start this summer and months of disruption ahead, it was time to get moving with our photograph of the site.

So, we mobilised Neena very early on Sunday morning. Our aim was simply to record the roundabout — usually extremely busy — in a peaceful state without any traffic.

In memory of Jimmy Henderson, our efforts resulted in this finished plate :

Cowgate Roundabout, Newcastle upon Tyne, shortly before its demolition.

Cowgate Roundabout — in memory of Jimmy Henderson. (Half Plate Ambrotype)

Behind the Scenes…

We made a lovely morning of it, not only loading Neena with the necessary photographic paraphernalia but also making sure we had a stash of fine coffee and treats.

Here are three of the images I shared on my Instagram feed at the time…

Jack Lowe on Instagram

Hen enjoying a coffee and pastry between plates. See the family resemblance with Jimmy, above?

Jack Lowe on Instagram

Standing in the doorway of my ambulance — a sentence I never thought I’d write.

Jack Lowe on Instagram

The vantage point.

My New Ambulance

It’s been a curve-curve ball of a week…

A while back you may remember that I was inspired by the work and adventures of Ian Ruhter who makes huge Tintypes in The States using his old blue van as a giant camera — a van he affectionately calls The Time Machine.

If you haven’t seen his now-famous Silver & Light video, I’ll include it at the bottom of this post for you. Watch it. You’ll love it.

At the beginning of my own journey in wet plate collodion, I’ve been fantasising about the kind of vehicle I might own one day to use as a mobile darkroom. So, I’ve been keeping a weather eye focussed on eBay to get an idea of what’s out there for when the time comes.

As you might imagine, there’s a plethora of weird and wonderful machines available. Two weeks ago, a decommissioned NHS ambulance came up for sale and I knew instantly that it would be perfect but, in all honesty, the timing felt too soon.

Mournfully, I watched it slip away — sold to some lucky buyer who I now envied…

Envy isn’t a pleasant emotion, so I quickly expelled the memory from my consciousness and endeavoured to move on. I managed that until eBay sent me a tantalising email stating:

“An item you were watching has been relisted.”

Shucks. Now it felt like destiny. The urge was strong to see if I could possibly bring this wondrous vehicle into my life. And thus, to cut a long story short and after a marathon return trip to Cheltenham yesterday, it became so.

This vehicle — shortly to be my wet plate collodion darkroom — is simply incredible. A ready-made lab on wheels. It’s built solidly, crammed with loads of  gadgets and has effortlessly awakened childhood memories (mainly involving Lego, toy cars and Ghostbusters).

The previous owners named it Neena — get it?

Anyway, I can’t wait for the adventures that lie ahead. Here it is — my new ambulance:

Jack Lowe's Ambulance / Wet Plate Collodion Darkroom

Jack Lowe's Ambulance / Wet Plate Collodion DarkroomJack Lowe's Ambulance / Wet Plate Collodion Darkroom

Jack Lowe's Ambulance / Wet Plate Collodion Darkroom

Jack Lowe's Ambulance / Wet Plate Collodion Darkroom

Jack Lowe's Ambulance / Wet Plate Collodion Darkroom

Jack Lowe's Ambulance / Wet Plate Collodion Darkroom

As promised, Ian Ruhter’s Silver & Light: