Seagulls without Souls – or, Weirdness with Wings

November 15, 2010 – Sabine Pass, Texas – McFaddin Park

My field recording trip to McFaddin Park at Sabine Pass (Texas) turned out a lot more interesting than I bargained for.  Saw my first live dolphin in the waves early that morning, maybe 40-50 feet out into the water behind the breaking waves.   A single, curved dorsal fin broke the surface and disappeared, no doubt looking for a breakfast of fish.  I also had an encounter with the law enforcement that keeps an eye on the state park.   He looked to be a young guy in his 30s, driving an SUV for the local sheriff’s department.  I think my strange wind basket, which I custom-built for my mics, caught his eye when he passed through.  He was trying to figure out for several minutes what in the heck it was.  I did my best to explain it to him and the nature recording I was doing of the Gulf waves that morning.  Felt kind of strange explaining about the 4″ long fur I put around the wind cage, but in the end, I think I made enough sense of the weird conglomeration of equipment I had around my car to satisfy his curiosity (microphones, mic stands, and wind cages aren’t usually common fare I’m sure for folks to see from afar, or even up close).

The wind cage itself was a reptile cage I purchased online (from – the PT2592 Explorarium 45) and which closely resembles the porous clothes hampers you can buy at Wal-Mart.   A large spring enables it to stand up when the sides are unsnapped.   It’s roughly 24″ in height and 18″ in diameter.  Once assembled, the cage, pvc pipe,  wood disk, and legs look very much like a small deer feeder with 3 tripod legs.  Once you put the fur around the top and sides, it looks like Cousin It (Adams family?).  I’ve often thought to myself that – for grins – I should find me a couple of large eye-disks with black dots jiggling around inside them, then mount those on the front of this puppy.  But, so far, I haven’t felt that adventurous.

Well, once all this was set up, and law enforcement had gone on about their business, I finally got into the recording.  Things went fairly quietly for a few hours, for the most part.  Occasionally someone would drive onto the beach – more vehicle motors to EQ out later.  Two helicopters during the whole day.  Not too much recording time would have to be removed there, but a little.  Winds kept swinging around.  Waves were crashing well, but became really erratic when the winds began blowing cross-shore and onshore.  The fur around the wind cage blocked it really well, though.

I tried recording 1 ½ hours for each of 4 tracks.  What was different was that two tracks were created with the mics at about 6 feet in the air, and the other two were with the mics at 2 ½ feet in the air.  The thing I learned from this trip was that the sound was significantly better the lower I set the mics. I’ve also read online (and personally heard the difference) where it’s suggested to find the sweet spot with recording at around zero to 24″ off the ground. The reason is so that your recording doesn’t end up with sound reflecting back up from the ground with a tiny delay and merging with the direct sound to cause a comb-filtered effect (or phase-canceled set of frequencies) in the recording. It’s also the same reason why it’s often suggested that when stereo recording in large rooms (say, a long, elementary school cafeteria) that one mic is put against a boundary of some kind, like a concrete or cylinder-block wall, or even on the floor (this can apply to both mics, too, just depends on what stereo technique you’re using mainly). Boundary mics are a whole other matter and not always do-able out in nature, unless you’re recording near some types of architecture or extremely thick areas of trees, vegetation, etc. But, the same issue still applies – reflected sound merging with the direct sound when both sound waves arrive at the microphone(s) with a timing difference of less than 30 milliseconds apart, or even under 1 millisecond in some cases (called a microsecond). Again, the result is that you have a comb-filtering effect, and this can color the tone of what you’re recording by boosting even-numbered harmonics to make it too warm, or odd-numbered harmonics to make it too bright or brittle. Now, if the coloration to the tone sounds good to you, then stick to that and don’t change it. It’s all subjective really, and just depends on how it sounds to your ears! Let your ears be the guide when you aren’t sure, regardless of what anyone suggests – me included. Just be mindful of the process that’s happening mainly, then aim and position your mics for what sounds right to you.

Another incredible lesson I learned was – DON’T FEED THE BIRDS!  I say this with the strongest of emphasis on the fact that it does not matter how loud they’re being on the mics – DO NOT FEED THEM!  Two black birds were nearby initially, one of which occasionally chirped or lightly squawked.  Its partner was silent for the most part.  Well, as the time passed, I noticed the squawking becoming louder and more insistent.  I finally took my headphones off and started walking towards the noise-maker such that he/she would fly some distance from me and land.  However, he/she continued squawking.  After doing this several times,  I finally decided I’d had enough.  I had stashed a bag of potato chips in the car while driving to the beach earlier that morning, so I pulled those out and opened them.  I proceeded to toss a chip or two to both birds every few minutes.  That quieted the noise-maker down, but only for a little while.  After eating one, he/she would be quiet for a bit.  Maybe 10-15 minutes later, the chirping would start-up behind my back.  I could hear this faintly on my headphones.  Then, the agitated squawking would begin.  Chirp..squawk…chirp…squawk. Back and forth it went, until the squawking was all I could hear.  Then, that pesky bird would start getting closer.  I turned around on my stool and looked at the critter.  It was dancing back and forth, turning to its left, then back to its right, squawking without a break.  It was most evident from his/her body language that someone – wanted more chips.

Well, things continued like this for maybe 30-45 minutes.  I figured I would be able to get enough descent waves recorded without the loud bird squawks if my chips held out.  Boy, was I wrong.  I forgot one massively important detail about the beach – seagulls.

Yep, a whole flock of those birds were maybe 100+ yards downwind from me on the beach, huddled together in a huge group.  I’d dare to guess that there were over 100 of them there.  Well, I looked up at one point, mainly to check for the noisy blackbird and his/her partner.   As luck would have it, I glimpsed 2 or 3 seagulls standing with silent, ominous stares some 20 feet away from me.  They were watching me, and nothing more.

The next chip I threw to the blackbirds, those 3 watchers were on it, managing to grab the chip off the sand before the blackbirds could even begin to visually locate the morsel.   I knew then that this didn’t bode well.  Something would be amiss very shortly.  I proceeded to throw more chips.   I figured, hey, what could it hurt, just 2 blackbirds and 3 seagulls?  Not too bad.

Again, my reasoning and logic were sadly lacking.  You see, there were well over 100 seagulls not far from these 3.   Why I didn’t think that others – many, many others – wouldn’t be interested in free food, I’ll never know.  But, as I threw chips, the seagull population within 20 feet of me began to increase with logarithmic proportion, density, and mass, like some college physics lesson gone horribly wrong.  And, the more who gathered for free food, the more this new group became noticed by the larger population.

I began to stare with disdain and hopeless resolve at the silent, gaping eyes of what seemed like endless  seagulls, all staring blank and hungrily – at me – and my chips.  5…10…15 – I dare not count more I reasoned, and decided that the squawker might have been just fine as a single problem.  I decided to walk to my car and see if I had any more food.  I just wasn’t a fast learner that day.

Opening my car door, I turned my head and glanced at the gulls and blackbirds.  They were following me, under 10 feet away.  Silent stares.  I shook my head.  I drove 2½ hours here to record waves in the hope of creating a sellable nature CD, not to try to avoid bodily harm from blackbirds and seagulls if my food reserves ran low.  I sighed.  What to do, I wondered?

Well, I considered, if I hadn’t started feeding these pesky critters, I might not be where I was.  Glad the law enforcement wasn’t expecting donuts.  I really would’ve had problems.  It was late in the afternoon at this point, roughly 5 pm or so.  The sun would be dipping under the horizon in another 45 minutes, so I decided that too many seagulls and noisy blackbirds had been enough.  Besides, those stares from the seagulls were starting to make me feel a bit weird.  Silent, dead, evil stares.  I shuddered.

Yep, time to head it home and leave these winged worry-warts to their selves.  Besides, I’d had a long day, a slight sunburn, and many more annoyances than the typical recording expedition I was accustomed to having.

After loading all my equipment up, all the while being squawked at loudly by one certain blackbird, I had the sudden realization why law enforcement kept an eye on this state park beach.  It wasn’t to keep tabs on the people out here.  No sir, not at all.   Rather, I personally felt with great conviction and certainty that it was to protect us human folk from those long, blank stares – evil stares – seagulls without souls.  As I climbed into my car and shut the door, I glanced in my rear-view mirror.  Silent stares.  Ominous, silent stares. I wasted no time hitting the gas pedal.


About Nature Nutt

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