While I enjoy eating fish (especially sashimi & sushi!) I am not much of a fisherman – ten minutes on the water and I am about ready to head home again, although I do like the saying by Henry David Thoreau: “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” (And of course, the other funny but presumably untrue fishing quote: ‘the best two days of a boat owners life are the day he buys a boat, and the day he sells it!’) and while the idea of night fishing is intriguing, in my case it wasn’t fish I was after. And I also wasn’t on the water.
The first night when I arrived in Little Huia I was struck by a beautiful sound I hadn’t heard in years; the melancholic call of the Ruru/Morepork. The Morepork is an owl, native to New Zealand and as a night bird it is rarely seen, and generally only heard when you are in a quiet rural location.
The Ruru/Morepork has two highly evolved features that are amazing to witness. The first can be seen in a beautiful film by the other Artist in Residence in the Waitakere Ranges, Denise Batchelor. I very highly recommend you visit her website and watch an excerpt of her 2011 film Ruru here – the way the huge pupils of the Ruru expand & contract is astoundingly beautiful (and makes me wish for such a lens for my camera!)
The other aspect of the Ruru that amazes me is a sound you will never hear: its silent wings. Other native birds such as the Tui and the Wood Pigeon have beautifully audible wings, flitting through the trees they remind me of the sound of a Japanese fan being (very) rapidly waved – I have recorded some of these while in Huia and will post them in a future post. But the Ruru is a highly evolved night hunter, its incredible eye sight and silent wings means its prey don’t know to hide until its too late!
Here is a very short little doco with some great close up footage of a morepork in daylight:
That video doesn’t feature the morepork at night nor its call, but as I had heard them in the trees behind my house in Little Huia, I decided my first mission would be to try & record a Morepork close up. So here started my night fishing missions!
My first attempt was a dismal failure, and in hindsight laughable. I put together a portable record kit and prepared to head out into the night.
My night fishing rig included a Sound Devices 744 recorder & 302 preamp, a Telinga parabolic dish with MKH8020 and a pair of MKH8040s. I jumped in my 4WD and headed up the hill a bit, following the road to Whatipu and stopping every so often to listen. When I thought I was close to some Moreporks I would jump out, grab my backpack & start walking towards where I thought they were. But here was the problem: just as I started to get close to one, it would stop calling. And even if I waited, it would not start again. In hindsight, with its silent wings it had more than likely flown away without me realising. So after a couple of hours of this sort of behaviour I headed home with what I thought was only three single calls – a start but hardly what I was hoping for!
Apart from the beautiful plaintive call, the other aspect of the moreporks call that I am interested in is its timing. Unlike some birds which either sing rapid-fire bursts, or longer melodies, the Ruru calls sparsely & rhythmically – in a slow rhythm, more reminiscent of a temple bell than a drum beat. My ideal was to set my mic up under a tree with a morepork in it & record it for half an hour…
So I went to bed that night feeling a little disappointed, Ruru 1 Field recordist 0
By the next morning my sub conscious had come up with a better approach:
Being a clumsy city dweller driving around in a noisy 4WD, slamming car doors & lugging a backpack full of gear in hindsight is not really conducive to sneaking up on an owl who makes it living by stealth. Those moreporks probably heard me leaving the house & had a good laugh at my ridiculous antics. ‘Here he comes! Hee hee… let’s pretend we haven’t noticed him… ‘
So plan 2 was to set up my mics, and go home. As any bird photographer or recordist will likely tell you, even if you are being stealthy arriving at a location & then becoming silent, it usually takes 20 minutes before the birds will start to continue their behaviour like you aren’t there. The only part I was a little apprehensive about was leaving my gear in the bush late at night and it getting rained on. I have been out on a sunny day here shooting & a sudden rain cloud appeared from nowhere. So I solved that problem by asking the local ranger if I could set up my gear under a balcony by a currently unused camping building, Project K, late on a Sunday night. So about 8.30pm I headed up there, and rigged my mcid pointing in all directions – this time as I wasn’t having to be portable I again used Telinga dish, plus the pair of ORTF MKH8040s but also added a pair of very directional MKH70s, recording to five discrete channels on ym recorders. I angled & pointed each of the mics at trees where I thought Ruru might be hanging out, loaded a fresh set of batteries & went back home for a few hours…
Returning after 10.30 I had my fingers crossed – happily the recorders were still rolling, but it wasn’t until the next morning that I discovered what I had recorded… For the first hour or so, only distant mroeporks are heard, but then only about 20 minutes before I went & retrieved my gear, this is what I captured:
From the excellent NZ Birds website: “It is hardly surprising that, in Maori mythology, Ruru which hunts by night on silent wings and has a melancholy hooting call, is associated with the spirit world. In fact the special ancestral spirit of a family group is thought to take the form of Ruru. Known as Hine–ruru, the “owl woman”, Maori traditionally believed that these owl guardians had the power to, protect, warn and advise. According to such beliefs, the presence of a morepork sitting in a conspicuous place nearby, knocking on a window or even entering the house signifies a death the family while the high piercing call of the morepork is thought to herald bad news and the ordinary call to indicate good news on the way.”
The DOC website has some interesting info about the Ruru, including what you can do to help the Ruru live long & prosper
I suspect I will do more of the set up the mics and leave it recording approach, and one idea I had help protect the gear incase of a sudden shower was to somehow rig up a small umbrella. After doing a quick search I found & ordered this handy device, the UC-6 umbrella and clamp made by Velbon.
While checking out other Velbon products I also came across their ultra compact tripod: the Velbon UT series looks like a more compact AND more sturdy tripod than what I am currently using as a mic stand for my MKH8040s!