What would you expect to hear at dusk on the edge of a wetland?
A chorus of frogs, chirruping birds settling down to roost for the night, the mechanical whirr of various insects, interjections from some of the noisier avian species? Don’t forget the whine of mosquitoes.
Would you expect to hear silence?
As Pulse of the Wetlands went into full-force planning in February, a reconnaisance visit was made in late February to the Macquarie Marshes Environmental Trust owned property, “Burrima”, nestled in the middle of the western boundary of the northern marsh of the Ramsar-listed Nature Reserve. It was to be a quick, overnight stay to gather information, make observations, test a few recording techniques and essentially gather baseline recordings of the site while it is still in a drought state. I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I hadn’t been up there for about 25 years.
I knew water in the Macquarie River was slowly making its way north, destined for the Marshes. I’d been hearing about it all week in the news and on social media platforms. Knowing that rain in the area had been localised and patchy, I felt I was racing the water to capture the site in its true drought state. Project manager for “Burrima”, Dave Duncan told me the property was “as bad as it could get”.
On the back of prolonged drought, part of the block burnt in a fire that took out 3,000 ha of the Marshes in October 2019. In the north-east corner of “Burrima”, the damage was clear. Reed beds, lignum and red gums were blackened or turned to ash. Rain a few days later saw the reeds reshooting, and there has been some epicormic growth on some trees. Some are gone for good. The stress of the drought and little or no storm rain at the start of 2020 has been too much. Large expanses of the black soil plains — chenopod shrubland and Coolabah-Black Box woodland that effortlessly merges — fringing the western side of the wetland are bare except for prolific scatterings of tiny, white shells, the odd roly poly, and large scalds dotted with poverty bush and various saltbushs, the stunning white petalled, glossy leafed Darling lilies pushing through the grey crust.
“Burrima” is a perfect location for a project like Pulse, as it’s a valuable snapshot of the main vegetation communities of the Macquarie Marshes – the dry chenopod shrublands, coolibah woodlands that rarely or occasionally flood, a flooded river red gum forest that is sometimes dry, and a slice of the core North Marsh reed bed – part of the largest reed bed in southern Australia.
On the afternoon of my first day at “Burrima”, as the day gradually warmed to about 30 degrees (very mild by usual standards), and the little black flies threatened to carry me away but for my fly veil, I scoped an area to set up camp in the north-east corner of the block. It was an area that was within easy walking distance to capture both the river red gums and the reeds, with a clear view over the Nature Reserve. It was a contained area, but I still chocked up 8km walking across the site from each recoding location, between mid afternoon to 9.30pm.
By the time the sun started to fall over the canopy of the red gums, I was setting up tripods with video cameras and recorders in various locations. I’d made a recording schedule throughout the afternoon, with a sequence designed to cater for the location, the technology and the planned recording time. I was using a Lumix 100 compact camera for a 3.5 minute 4K resolution time lapse (7,000 shots over 2 hours), a Garmin VIRB 360 for 5K resolution (shot in RAW) 360 video across two locations at varying heights (perspectives), the drone in 4K in Tripod mode using the birds-eye-view gimbal position across dry channels and reed beds as well as out on the black soil plain, a Lumix GH4 was also set up to capture the reeds at dusk and the Nature Reserve at dawn, along with two ZOOM sound recorders capturing 360 atmospheric sound, as well as lavs and a shotgun mic on the H6 to get more directed atmospherics. I had also played around with the contact mic on trees earlier in the day but have come to the sad conclusion the mic is damaged. The light on this late summer weekend was perfect, particulary in the early evening and following morning…not to forget I was planning to shoot into the dark as well. What was unexpected was the lack of sound – other than the constant buzz of flies and brief scolding chatter of the Willie Wagtails.
As I woke at a pre-dawn 6am the following morning to set up for the morning shoot across the Nature Reserve, the birds slowly joined me. It wasn’t a cacophony, as I often experience at home on my Dubbo bush block, but it was an almost lazy arrangement of woodland birdsong that included the Willies, galahs, ravens, magpie-larks, ringneck parrots, wood ducks, and a few wrens who were darting about fallen timber in the reeds. Thankfully, the flies were slow to rise too.
The night spent lying in my swag from the back of the ute, staring at a ceiling of stars from behind my fly/mozzie veil, it struck me again how there was no soundtrack to the light show. Other than the whine of a mosquito or two, there were no frogs or insects keeping late hours, only an occasional burst from the Willie Wagtails and one other bird I didn’t recognise. I’m a light sleeper but no noises woke me through the night – only my hips on the thin swag mattress caused me to toss and turn.
Finishing up about 7.30am at the north-east corner, I made my way back to the “Burrima” shed to get some low-level footage of the black soil plain using the drone. I recorded some atmos from this site using both the ZOOM H6 and the H2N 360 recorder. In 15 minutes of sound recording, only a few raucous galahs, a caroling magpie, and the raven calls echoing through the red gums in the distance broke the early morning silence.
The presence of the Darling lilies on the plain hint better seasons may lay ahead. They’re known for being more abundant in sparsely-timbered, flooded areas. I hope they’re right and that on my next visit, the birds, amphibians and insects have regrouped into a truly glorious wetland troupe of choristers.
Follow the progress of Pulse of the Wetlands on Facebook and Instagram @GoldsmithStudio.