Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Dodotronic: premium-grade audio at an affordable price

For those of you that read my previous post on "noc-migging: my story so far" you will know that this year saw a revolution in the way I listen to birds after hearing an inspiring talk by Magnus Robb and taking up noc-migging from my urban balcony, near Barcelona, adding a wide array of unexpected and scarce species to my apartment list including Yellow-browed Warbler, Hawfinch, Brambling, Rock Bunting, Common Crane, etc.

Three calls from a Yellow-browed Warbler, recorded flying over my balcony on 22/10/19
I used a very humble setup consisting of just a pot and my trusty Olympus LS-12 recorder. It worked amazingly well but after some time I decided I wanted a higher quality of recording and wanted to have better technology that allowed me to record during the day also. A parabolic reflector was surely the answer but I just couldn't afford the famous Telinga brand which retails at about 700 euro. After some research I found out about a much more affordable brand called Dodotronic, based out of Italy. This was going for 450 euro (here), so 250 euro cheaper. That's a lot of money saved! There is a very good review here which more than convinced me to try it out. Aside from the review itself, the author also includes a link to his Xeno-Canto page where he has a wide array of recordings taken with a Dodotronic setup, and they are just astounding! 

The beginnings of my sound recording adventures. An Olympus LS-12 in a pot, with some cling film on the top!

So, based on the excellent price, the great review and the stunning samples on the above Xeno-Canto page, I decided to try the Dodotronic for myself and I have to say: I am absolutely in love with it. The recordings are so clear and the reach of the parabola is incredible. I ordered it on a Thursday and it arrived before lunch on the Monday - what a service! Before this, my correspondence with the owner of the company was extremely rapid, unlike other companies I have dealt with in the past. This was very reassuring to know, having had some real communications issues with other companies in the past when I had technical issues with other electrical devices.

My new noc-mig setup. Currently noc-mig is rather quiet and will be until the spring!

The setup of the device was very straightforward. I was amazed at how lightweight the whole thing was. This is important if you plan to use it for extended periods in the field. I have used it from dawn to dusk on two occasions with zero discomfort or cramps during or at the end of the day.

I was tied for time on the Monday but managed to get out to my local reserve in windy conditions. Despite the wind and the distant drone of the main motorway leading into Barcelona, I was absolutely blown away by the quality of the sound the Dodotronic was producing. Below is a sample from my first day of use: featuring two White Wagtails having a dispute. I was totally blown away by the fact that my new setup detected both the wing-beats and sounds of the birds landing on vegetation.

As a side note: because I have been focused on sound recording and testing out my new equipment, I didn't take many photos in the field and some of the photos were taken at a different time and/or location. Furthermore, all of the audios featured here were recorded with the above-listed Dodotronic setup.

White Wagtail, Delta Llobregat, Spring 2019

The quality of the recordings were impeccable but I needed to find somewhere with zero noise pollution to get the full impression of what my new Dodotronic was capable of. Luckily, the weekend of December the 6th was a long weekend here in Catalunya, so, on the Friday I drove inland to the Spanish steppes before working my way back slowly throughout the day into Catalunya. The steppes in winter, whilst not as productive as they are in the Spring and early Summer, are still full of interesting species to see and hear. My first targets were Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and of course their fine supporting cast of Calandra Lark, Lesser Short-toed Lark, Thekla Lark, etc.

The steppes in Spring, whilst mostly influenced by man nowadays, are a spectacle to see and hear.

I arrived to my first destination just after sunrise and upon stepping out of the car the first thing I noticed was the silence - a far cry from the urban jungle of Barcelona. I leaned against the car and immediately began to record whatever passed overhead. One of the first birds I heard were Linnets and thus, below is one of the first noise-free recordings I took with my new setup. You can hear a machine in the background but it isn't bad. The clarity and volume of the Linnet is amazing.

Without a doubt, the most common vocalists here were Calandra Larks, who evidently sing right through the winter, as this was not the first time this winter I had heard the singing here. Again another extremely clear, noise-free recording. I was really beginning to enjoy using the machine at this point.

A Calandra Lark sitting upon its perch, taking a break between songs in the Catalan steppes, Spring 2019

Among the flocks of Calandra Larks were the ever melodic Skylarks, which come from the north to spend to winter here. I had several close passes by different birds which gave their typical call, reminding me of the many Autumns I have spent seeking our rarities on Irish headlands, where this species is a common diurnal, vocal migrant.

Before long, I soon detected one of the main target birds - Black-bellied Sandgrouse. Amazingly, I couldn't see it, but the I could hear it calling through my earphones, which were tapped into my Dodotronic setup. I essentially used it as a bird detector and was able to follow it in flight using the earphones, and, despite not seeing it, thus assuming it was somewhat distant, I was extremely pleased with the following recording:

Soon after picking up the Black-bellied Sandgrouse I began to hear distant Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, through the earphones. With some careful listening and driving I eventually pinned them down nearly 1km away! That was really impressive to me - the reach of the Dodotronic. I was successfully using it throughout the day as a means of locating Sandgrouse which weren't audible to the "naked ear".

A lone Pin-tailed Sandgrouse photographed earlier in the year in Catalunya. Often more camouflaged than one would expect!

The quality of recordings the Dodotronic produces are just supreme and I found myself deleting very few, at the end of the day, which meant it took me several days to edit everything. Here are some of my favourite remaining audios from the steppes that day.

First up is another very familiar autumn sound from back home, and a species which is restricted to winter is these parts - the Meadow Pipit. There were lots of birds feeding and making small internal flights among the steppes, and this bird obligingly passed over my head, calling all the while.

Corn Buntings are very plentiful here and they kindly provided me with close performances of their song and flight calls. The song has been compared to a set of jangling keys which isn't a bad description. The call, shown below is a series of very sharp metallic sounding "bit" notes.

Corn Bunting feeding on "corn" - the Catalan steppes, Spring 2019

Delighted with connecting with my two main targets - the two sandgrouse species, as well as lots of other nice steppe birds, I decided to head back to Catalunya, more specifically to Utxesa, which is the biggest reed-bed site in the region. I had two targets here: Bearded Tit and Sinensis Cormorant (just because I think it's an amazing sounding call).

Sinensis Cormorant, Delta del Llobregat, Spring 2019

Arriving at Utxesa approximately an hour later, the first vocal bird I encountered, singing from a tree at the edge of the reed-bed was this vocally stunning Common Starling. The detail and clarity in the audio produced by the Dodotronic is really apparent here. I especially love the clicking sounds towards the end. My old setup would never have produced anything, anywhere near as audibly pleasing as this.

It didn't take too much effort to pick up the Bearded Tits, and I soon heard them calling from the main parking area. I carefully made my way down the track and got relatively close to them. I never actually saw them, despite them sounding rather close, which is not unusual for the species, it seems. It's a call I'm quite fond of, having heard it first some years ago back in Wexford, where the species has re-colonised Ireland in a small pocket.

As I was recording the Bearded Tits, I couldn't help laughing at this rather comical call of a Carrion Crow behind me.

Continuing along the track that hugs the perimeter of the reed-bed I was drawn to a call I have recently become familiar with - the whistling "psee-ee" call of a female-type Marsh Harrier that was soaring overhead, with three other birds. It's a nice call and one I associate with any substantial reed-bed here in winter. I first heard this call last winter when a bird was being mobbed by a Common Buzzard. I was surprised at how gentle the call sounded, despite coming from such a big predatory bird.

A Marsh Harrier hunting over my local patch - Delta del Llobregat, Winter 2018/19

As I rounded a corner I noticed a large tree across the water which had about 40 Sinensis Cormorants roosting. They were a little ways away and I wasn't sure if I could get a nice recording from the side of the lake I was standing. Nevertheless, I decided to fire up the Dodotronic, pointing it at the tree on record, waiting for a new bird to fly in an elicit a vocal response from an already settled bird.

It took about 10 minutes before this happened, but it did and the results were surprisingly satisfying. I read about calling cormorants just recently in "Catching the Bug" by Mark Constantine, Nick Hopper and the Sound Approach team. The calls sounded so prehistoric, and even more interesting was the fact that they identified a subtle difference between calls of sinenis and carbo'.

At the end of each call phrase birds often give a series of "rolled Rs", and these are given faster in sinensis. I heard these calls several times ( a good example can be heard approx' 6 seconds into the first of the 2 recordings), and they matched up to the examples given in the book - interesting! These cormorants weren't close, so the quality of the audio is another testament to the quality of the Dodotronic. I'm really happy with it.

A cormorant wind-drying at Delta del Llobregat, Winter 2018/19

As I was watching the Cormorants I noticed a Great White Egret feeding at the waters edge just below the cormorant roost tree. I thought for a second and realised I had no idea what a Great White Egret sounded like and concluded that they mustn't call too often. With time on my hands, and a rather curious mind, I set the Dodotronic to work and pointed it at the egret hoping for something to happen to make it call.

After a few minutes, luck played its part and a Cormorant suddenly landed, right where the egret was fishing. The sudden commotion spooked the egret, and with that it flew giving a very low, barely audible grumbling call. It wasn't what I expected it. Looking at its size and similarity in build to Grey Heron, I guess I was expecting a call similar to that species. But thinking of the calls of Little Egret, it makes sense that they should call like this.

A Great White Egret stalking fish at Delta del Llobregat, Winter 2018/19

Having achieved what I had set out the do at this site, and feeling rather chuffed as well as being highly impressed with the performance of my new Dodotronic, I decided to continue to the next site - Montoliu Dump. This spot is excellent for Red Kites, Griffon Vultures, White Storks and more, all taking advantage, both directly and indirectly, of the refuse-waste there. This place is a spectacle of numbers, with Storks usually exceeding the 1000 mark, with hundreds of raptors.

A group of Griffon Vultures rest close to the perimeter of the dump, in-between feeds. Spring 2019

The first three recordings are of corvids which also take advantage of the easy meal available there. First up is Jackdaw - a species which is somewhat scarce in Delta del Llobregat, but is rather abundant here.

Magpies squabbled and fed on scraps from tree-top perches at the dump perimeter.

Last but not least, some Red-billed Chough flew overhead calling, giving me a great opportunity to record the species. It's still a little strange seeing this species so readily inland, as years of observing them back home in Ireland has led my mind to believe they are a strictly coastal species, seen particularly in the wild southern and western Atlantic coasts. Of course this isn't solely the case as they are commonplace in the Pyrenees and I have also had them in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. I came across an  inland sites in Ireland a few years back also.

A Red-billed Chough feeding at Ballynamona Strand, Co. Cork. This coastal spot is where I traditionally expected the species, until I began birding on the continent.

Standing at the edge of the dump I watched some 40+ Red Kites feeding and floating around. They occasionally called, but I was unlucky and they were either too distant, amongst the screaming hoards of Starlings & Jackdaws, or I simply just missed the moment. Whilst trying in vain, I was suddenly drawn to a call coming from the conifers, just the other side of the fence I was standing alongside. It was a loud call and reminded me of Iberian Green Woodpecker. I focused the Dodotronic on it and began to record.

It called insistently and the more it called the less I was convinced it was a woodpecker at all. It was surely a raptor, based on the tone and presentation, plus the habitat was all wrong for a woodpecker. It was coming from a stand of stunted, sorry-looking conifers at the edge of the tip - presumably half poisoned from whatever leeches from the overpoweringly smelly dump.

Iberian Green Woodpecker with its typically reduced black mask. Delta del Llobregat, Spring 2019

After some minutes I slowly edged to the left trying to peer from one tree to another, hoping to catch a glimpse of the culprit, when I flushed a Marsh Harrier! It happened so fast I didn't have time to age or sex it, I just know it was a female-type. The first part of the audio below plays the initial woodpecker-like call, which I can only assume is an alarm call. I can't find a corresponding example on xeno-canto. At approx 50 seconds in, it changes to a much more raptor-like call, which has a similar corresponding example here.

Marsh Harrier, Delta del Llobregat, Spring 2019

From here, the sun was setting and so I decided to see if I could record some Eagle Owls (at an undisclosed location due to sensitivity). I arrived an hour early and decided to go for a little walk. The last time I was here I had several Hawfinch and a Brambling as well as lots of other vocal passerines. There were no Hawfinch or Brambling but the wintering Blackcaps were extremely vocal and I recorded a whole range of call types from the species.

My last stop for the day!
First up is the typically harsh "check" calls given by the species. This call was given in rather rapid succession, having been alarmed by me as I walked by. It was given, in typical fashion; from dense undergrowth, with a stream also audible in the background. The area has a dense population of wintering Blackcaps presumably because of the combination of the shelter offered by the valley and undergrowth, and the stream which keeps the vegetation lush, allowing for lots of berries to survive in an otherwise rather arid region.

The next audio feature the "check" call along with a more nasal "shree" call. This nasal call is one which I am familiar with, given occasionally by birds back home in Ireland, but much less frequently than the first call type.

Further down the stream I heard calls from what sounded like a rather alarmed Blackcap. It sounded like the second call type from the above, but given in much faster succession, repeatedly. It was loud and sounded like an old car that someone was having problems starting. I don't recall hearing this back home before, but it is presumably a variation of the "check" alarm call from the first of the three audios.

An over-wintering Blackcap at my parent's feeder back home in Cork, Winter 2018/19

The owl did eventually show but called only very faintly, just as the only tractor in the area decided to drive past... slowly! Oh well - I'll save that mission for another night. Anyway, it was a fantastic day for testing out my new Dodotronic and I can say without a doubt that this is an amazing piece of kit for anyone wanting to take sound recording a little bit more seriously, and not wanting to break the bank. I've never owned a Telinga so I cant compare directly, but, the sound recordings I have taken with the Dodotronic are extremely impressive and I couldn't imagine how they could possibly be any better (this isn't a boast but merely a nod to the quality of the equipment), especially not for an extra 250 euro!

A superior piece of kit which is kind on the pocket - what more could you want!

1 comment:

  1. Excellent work Seán unreal sound quality with the new equipment