A guest blog from Merlyn Driver – a musician, creative producer and nature lover who shares his journey in creating the Curlew Sounds album.

For the past year or so I’ve been working on an album project for curlews (Simmerdim: Curlew Sounds) which is finally being announced in full today, World Curlew Day. It’s been a real passion project for me for various reasons. I grew up on a smallholding in Orkney in the north of Scotland, and the sound of curlews calling out in the ‘simmerdim’ – the night-long twilight found in the Northern Isles around midsummer – is one of my most vivid memories of home. Curlew vocalisations are totally unique, featuring complex harmonics and pitch variations. Their sound is often described as haunting, but just as often as hopeful or even ecstatic. Where curlews breed, their bubbling calls are often considered to be a symbol of spring; still haunting perhaps, but not in a negative way. For me, their sound captures the passage of seasons and cycles of life and death; there might be ghosts in there, but there’s also rebirth and renewal.

Merlyn Driver

In 2020 I began working on a new song, called ‘Simmerdim’, inspired by my childhood memories of curlews. This was provoked partly by hearing that the species (we’re talking of course about the Eurasian curlew – Numenius arquata) was endangered and had been placed on the conservation Red List. To get inspiration for lyrics though, I started doing a bit of research into the history of curlews in culture, and what I found really fascinated me. I discovered the wealth of poetry and music that curlews have inspired, and also started uncovering the fascinating folklore around curlews in the British Isles. Given how they sound, it’s perhaps not surprising that these birds have provoked a wide range of responses from poets, musicians and writers (I’ve written at length about this subject on the Curlew Sounds website). Inspired by my discoveries, and motivated by the thought that we could lose curlews from the UK countryside, I decided to try and assemble other creative responses to this iconic bird – this time on their behalf. I couldn’t do it alone though.

The partnership with the RSPB has been really important on a number of levels, but the way that the album ties into the Curlew LIFE project is really key. Simmerdim: Curlew Sounds comprises two discs. The first is all about music – newly commissioned curlew-inspired works from a range of artists and bands. The second disc though shifts focus entirely to the birds themselves. For disc two I travelled the length and breadth of the UK, collecting recordings of curlews at the five Curlew LIFE project locations, all of which were selected due to their importance for breeding curlews; RSPB Geltsdale and Hadrian’s Wall (England), Ysbyty Ifan and Hiraethog (Wales), RSPB Insh Marshes (Scotland), Lough Erne Lowlands, and the Antrim Plateau (Northern Ireland). The aim of the project is to deliver emergency action to stabilise curlew breeding populations within these landscapes by 2024. This is crucial, since we really need to prioritise curlew conservation in places where breeding curlew populations have a strong chance of recovering. With the help of my sister, Fiona, I also collected curlew recordings from near our childhood home in Orkney, still a stronghold for curlews, despite numbers halving in my lifetime.

My favourite part of this entire album project was actually visiting the Curlew LIFE project sites and meeting the amazing people who are working with curlews on the ground. I started the recordings up at RSPB Geltsdale last April, where I captured the iconic bubbling songs of male curlews displaying to attract mates and defend their territories. During my time on the nature reserve I was getting up before four o’clock in the morning, and was privileged to experience some incredible sunrises and wildlife. After years in London, returning to a land of curlews felt blissful. The joy of having their sounds in the air, and of being able to reach down and pick some sorrel or other wild plants to nibble on, is something I had missed more than I can put into words. I’m grateful to RSPB Geltsdale’s Farmland Warden, Ian Ryding, for his guidance (and for keeping me supplied with caramel wafers!).

From RSPB Geltsdale I travelled on to Conwy Valley in Wales, where I was joined by the RSPB’s Curlew LIFE Project Manager, Samantha Lee. We didn’t have the best luck with the weather before Sam left (along with her car), but on my final night in the area I met a local farmer, Iona Roberts, who kindly drove me back across the valley to a place where I knew I’d be able to find curlews. I recorded some beautiful curlew alarm calls that night, on a perfect sunny evening with cotton grass blowing in the breeze. The sound of curlew alarm calls is a poignant one as it can indicate the presence of chicks. While not enough chicks are currently surviving to adulthood, the sound still symbolises hope for the future, as well as a warning of what we could lose.

RSPB Insh Marshes

Next on the itinerary was RSPB Insh Marshes in Scotland, where I spent much of my time with the RSPB’s Curlew LIFE Project Officer for RSPB Insh Marshes, Thijs Claes. He’s a man on a mission to understand exactly what’s happening with curlews at this site, and his enthusiasm and commitment to the cause is infectious. When he wasn’t out on the marshes he was watching footage from camera traps that he’d got wired up in his living room, trying to understand how curlews are interacting with predators and the rest of their environment. One day I ventured out to the marshes alone and got to witness a group of curlews mobbing an otter who was predating their eggs and chicks – quite a dramatic and moving scene. Given the intensity of the curlews’ response, I felt certain that one or more chicks had been taken. Their alarm calls were different – more frantic and ragged.

The remaining two legs of the curlew sound recording trip took me over the Irish Sea to the two project sites in Northern Ireland. On the Antrim Plateau, me, local Curlew LIFE Project Officer Katie Gibb, and Research Assistant Annie Birtwistle, were treated to a spectacular night-time cacophony of snipe and curlews. As the last of the sunset’s peachy-pinkness drained below the horizon, the snipe came out in force, drumming their tail feathers above us and ‘chipping’ from the ground. A sheep coughed like a human. Before long, as if they knew we’d been waiting for them, eerie nocturnal curlew sounds entered the soundscape. After some initial contact calls, one of the adults started making an alarm call that none of us had heard before – a strange, short stabbing sound, repeated over many minutes.

Finally, on to the Lough Erne Lowlands – a land of islands, which supports around 20% of all the breeding curlews on the island of Ireland. At every Curlew LIFE project site I visited, at least one person took me fully under their wing. In Lough Erne Lowlands that person was Fionnbarr Cross, and I’ll always be grateful to him for rowing me across to Hare Island for one of the most beautiful evenings in nature I’ve experienced. The island – one of more than 150 on the lough – is a haven for wading birds. This soundscape includes redshanks, oystercatchers, snipe and common sandpipers, as well as curlews.

Without meaning any disrespect to the human musicians on this album (and I’m one of them), my favourite sounds are all on disc two. And as important as saving curlews is from a biodiversity perspective, biological and environmental protection is also cultural protection. Supporting curlews helps to ensure that pathways remain open to us for imagination and wonder. I hope I’ve captured something of their magic on these recordings, and that they open up some new pathways for people. But hearing curlews through speakers or headphones can never rival the experience of hearing them in their environment. As Mary Colwell (curlew conservation campaigner and author of Curlew Moon) once told me, curlews are like salt and pepper for a landscape. Sprinkle a bit of curlew song onto the countryside and it comes alive and wild. While listening to curlews on your headphones is going to be much nicer than eating a mouthful of salt and pepper, nothing beats being immersed in their world, and so we must protect the places where they live.

Read more detailed accounts of Merlyn’s soundscape trips at https://www.curlewsoundsproject.org/diaries

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