Nature in a human crisis pt.2

I’m publishing this post midway through yet another week of quarantine. A quick glance at my calendar reveals that I previously knew this as a ‘Thursday‘. Its a a name that, along with other words like ‘weekend‘ and ‘bank holiday‘, once held significance in my life.

However, despite the blurring of time and monotony of the COVID lockdown, things are gradually changing. Many countries are working on exit strategies, as we all attempt to handle a return to normality, inch by inch.

Another area of change has been the environment. Social media has been awash with viral photos of unusual wildlife in urban areas, such as dolphins swimming through the canals of Venice. Sadly this, along with several similar posts have been discredited. As a wider picture though, the predicted largest ever annual drop in global emissions will surely give some respite to the environment. Furthermore, the immediate reduction in noise pollution is having positive effects that are already being studied.

As outlined in my last post I’m interested in how our sonic environment has changed, and have been reflecting upon my own situation in my home of London. Since writing my first post, several other articles on this topic have emerged. There is also the evolution of the fantastic Ambient Isolation project, which has already collected over 500 soundscapes from across the world, and will be releasing a global dawn chorus recording on the 3rd of May

Relative Silence in Soho

Disclaimer: No unnecessary journeys were made in the making of these recordings and social distancing measures were observed at all times!

In contrast to my last recordings, I wanted to explore whether there were any noticeable changes to birdsong in central London. Having spent the last 18 months working in Soho, I can’t remember having ever heard or appreciated any meaningful birdsong at all.

The soundscape normally composes of the heavy drone of traffic from Oxford St. Planes and helicopters roar overhead, whilst taxis beep their way through a constant flow of people overspilling from narrow streets. The experience can be headache inducing at times, but right now I can only image the exhilaration.

Soho side-street skyline recording

Returning to work to collect my things, I used the opportunity to record from the rooftop and terraces of the two facilities with my compact DPA 4060 blimp. I wanted to capture the new ambience of rush-hour in Soho, but also to investigate whether I could hear anything unusual, such as, dare I hope, a dusk chorus.

I made this first recording just before 5pm from a 4th floor roof-ledge in blustery conditions, just 200m from Oxford Street. It was shocking to hear just how quiet the city had become. The recording mostly comprises of the now-dominating chorus of aircon units, with only sporadic signs of life below. To add to the feeling of desertion, the only birdsong heard was the occasional crow or gull that circled overhead. Bells later rang in the distance but I couldn’t say where from.

Hanging pub sign in the wind

As I crossed Soho to the other building, I kept my microphone recording. There was a familiarity in the occasional person I saw: media professionals, shop and restaurant owners. The only difference was that they were totally alone. Where normally there would be a hundred, there was now just one.

The above recording was made standing outside The Ship on Wardour street. The pub sign squeaks ominously in the wind as uncollected litter blows up and down the street. The occasional scooter or bicycle breezing along has replaced the street’s typical rush hour stop/start traffic jam. I found the scene to be really evocative, but still no birdsong to be heard.

Rooftop Terrace Recording

For the last location, I recorded from a 3rd floor rooftop terrace. Again all sounds seemed to have diminished, aside from the familiar barrage of aircons, the fluter of pigeons and a small gazebo creaking in the wind.

However, finally, in the distance I heard birdsong. Maybe it wasn’t a full chorus, but it was something. I suspect that it originated from the nearby Soho Square Gardens. If any Birders recognise the birdsong, I’d be interested to know the species!

Conclusion

So its seems that London hasn’t seen any Hitchcock-style take overs or dolphins in the canals just yet. That said, I plan to visit the same locations on my eventual return to central London and will record any further change to the soundscape.

What can be said, is that Soho’s hectic sonic environment has completely transformed. The fog of noise pollution has lifted, ceding territory to sounds that were perhaps there to be heard all along.

Comments

  1. Interesting post. Such a contrast! Central London has never sounded quite like this before. I live in Cheltenham and suddenly the industrial estate behind my house is silent. Normally we are also on the flight path to the local airport with a constant stream of single engined aircraft and helicopters, now only occasional. The ambient noise has dropped by several dB and the birds have gone crazy. From an audio point of view I am really enjoying it! Strange times indeed!

    1. Author

      Yes, as audio people we are obviously in tune to the changes, but its great to see so many other people taking note too! Im sure the ‘silence’ will be dearly missed when its gone

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