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The Pied Butcherbirds of Ormiston Gorge

by Andrew Skeoch

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Barn Owl 08:36


This album is our 100th Listening Earth release, and to celebrate this milestone, we're returning to one of our most evocative field recordings from the last 25 years.


In the small hours of the morning, a full moon illuminates a large waterhole at the entrance to Ormiston Gorge. The landscape all around is epic and ancient; massive quartzite rock walls are silhouetted above sandy banks of a waterhole lined with pale-barked gum trees.

This permanent water is a haven for wildlife, and here we listen into the night. A gentle breeze occasionally whispers through the leaves of the old ghost gums, while crickets chirrup from fringing reedbeds.

Subtle sounds come from all around, but the mesmerising focus is a Pied Butcherbird. It roosts unseen in a tree opposite, singing gracefully. The song of the Pied Butcherbird is renowned as being among the most musical in the avian world. But now, in the depths of the night, this bird is singing slowly, serenely, languidly, as though half asleep. And in this place, surrounded by an amphitheatre of rock, its voice echoes - one of nature's most sublime songs in a natural cathedral.

The Butcherbird is the nocturnal deva, however there is a whole outback ecosystem to be heard. Desert Tree Frogs chorus from the far end of the waterhole, a White-sided Freetail Bat hawks for insects overhead, and a Barn Owl screeches while flying past in the dark. On the water, a pair of Grebes float quietly, every now and then giving soft chattering calls.

The following evening we return to the same place to listen again, but this night our Butcherbird has roosted elsewhere, and its song echoes eerily from further up the gorge. Yet it is every bit as beautiful as previously. Meanwhile Rock Wallabies feed and move around the nearby rock slopes, occasionally dislodging stones or thumping noisily. A pair of Black-fronted Dotterels take flight and begin a raspy calling on the wing as they circle back and forth over the water.

These recordings are the complete sequences, remastered from our original field tapes.


These recordings were made in 1998, and at the time I felt they were magical. Edited versions of the two evenings became the first and last tracks of our 'Spirit of the Outback' album.

Since then, numerous people have commented that the Ormiston Butcherbird is a standout recording for them. I have played it at many lectures, and featured it in the beginning of my TedX talk. I've analysed the repertoire of this particular bird in terms of its phrase structure and sequencing. The British composer, Mark de Brito, used the recording as the basis of a solo piano composition.

Recently, Hollis Taylor, a musician and recordist who's PhD research, book and CD of original compositions explores the aesthetics of Butcherbird song, has told me that despite many visits to Ormiston over the years, she has never heard them sing there as we did those evenings. So it seems this recording is not only beautiful, but documents a truly serendipitous event.

For this album, we've chosen to complement the Ormiston recordings with one of our first nature recordings from 1993, and the one that really inspired me to become a field recordist.

It is another outback recording, from Mutawintji in western NSW, of Spiney-cheeked Honeyeaters singing at dawn.

We were at Mutawintji to record music for an early project that became 'Rockpool Reflections'. Capturing environmental ambiences was part of the project, but not something I'd done before. At the time I had only borrowed equipment, and was teaching myself how to work with the microphones.

The experience of hearing these Spineys singing hauntingly in the first light of day was a revelation to me. Despite a childhood fascination with birds in the Sydney bush where I'd grown up, I'd never heard this species, and realised I'd not taken much notice of birdsong. It felt to me that I was hearing for the first time; more than just birdsong, I was hearing the landscape giving voice to itself.

It was a formative step in the Listening Earth story, yet only a small sequence from the recording has so far seen the light of day. As with the Ormiston recordings, I've returned to the original field tapes, and remastered the complete sequence.

As I listen back over 25 years, I can remember my younger self standing in the dark, enthralled by what he was hearing, and hoping the recorder was working!


released February 9, 2019

Recording locations:
Track 1. Mutawintji (Mootwingee) National Park, western NSW
Tracks 2 - 9. Ormiston Gorge, western MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory


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Andrew Skeoch Australia

Andrew is a master wildlife field recordist. For over 30 years, he and partner / photographer Sarah Koschak have been documenting the voices of the world's ecosystems and wild creatures. The resulting recordings have been published through their dedicated label: Listening Earth ... more

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