What was that?

Most, apart from the best-informed naturalists among us, are puzzled from time to time by the sounds of nature; particularly the ones which surprise us in the middle of the night. Charlie Bennett investigates some of the creatures which go screech in the night

What was that? It’s a question I ask Mrs Bennett in the middle of the night when some sound has suddenly woken me up. If you believe in such things, the answer might be Old Tom, our resident poltergeist. He has been known to pop balloons and close doors when everyone is asleep. However, intriguing as Tom’s noises are, what really fascinates me are the strange sounds the wilder things make; sounds that can move me from duvet to ceiling in a matter of moments.

Before we dive in, writing about noise is a funny thing. In my role as writer, I must try to evoke the given noise in your imagination. That is easy if we go back to Tom. His best balloon “pop” that scared the wits out of me as I nodded off in front of the fire is probably easy for you to imagine. It would be the same with his other crash, bang, wallops; they’re easily lifted off the page and into your mind. The noises of the even wilder things than Tom, however, are harder to recreate on the page.

So, I have decided to go all 21st Century on you. We are going to go on a journey through the thickets, woods, under the ground and finally into the depths of a pond. For each of the noises we are going to explore, I am going to give you a website link to a recording. If you’re reading this article in the magazine, you will have to put the website links into your tablet or computer to hear the sounds. Alternatively, this article is also being uploaded to the Northumbrian website (address at the end of the article) so you can click on the links in the body of the digital version of article and go straight to the sounds.

You can then, from the comfort of your armchair, tree house or penny farthing enjoy or at least wonder at the strange cacophony of sounds being made out there in the wild. If on the other hand you don’t fancy a trip down Digital Lane, I shall try my hardest to lift the sounds off the page. Here goes…

One of the most evocative noises you are likely to hear is a fox’s bark or screech. Recently, I was heading out into the night to take the dogs out for their final constitutional before bedtime. As I stepped away from the house towards the wood I was barked at. It was a visceral noise, the sort of sound that goes straight to the button that says “hairs on the back of yer neck”. I was momentarily stunned. I dashed back and retrieved a powerful head torch. I crept back and shone the torch where the noise had come from. There, no more than 20ft away sitting and looking at me as cool as a cucumber, was a vixen. She looked bitterly disappointed. You see, the whole point of a vixen’s bark is to say to Mr Fox, “I’m ready for some fun”, not to scare the living daylights out of the two-legged things that live in huge stone dens. To hear a vixen cry, click here:


There is another woodland creature who can give you an equally scary moment. I was once wandering up a tall hedge on the farm with Ella my dog. We came to a sort of hinterland between hedge and wood. From this space came a loud throaty bark and then it came again only more urgently. Ella and I looked at each other a bit like Scooby Doo and Shaggy do when they meet a mummy, no not a nice mother, but a cantering member of the Egyptian dead. “What was that?” we wondered. Then in answer a white bottom skipped away down the side of the wood. It was a roe doe. This bark is usually a call of alarm. Roe are seldom alone, and the sight of humans close by is often enough for them to let the rest of the gang know that it is time to scarper. I was trying to think what to compare the bark to. I’d say it is like the cough of a good jazz singer who knocks back 40 Marlboros a day. Listen to this British Library recording and see if you agree: https://sounds.bl.uk/environment/british-wildlife-recordings/022m-w1cdr0001528-0600v0

Whilst we are beside the hedge, or even sometimes if you are by a kest, you might hear a high-pitched squeak. This is an extremely agitated stoat. This tenacious little hunter is highly excitable. It may have spotted something tasty like a rabbit, or another stoat. Again, unless you had been told what it was you might be left scratching your head. In fact, you might think you were hearing a squeaky wheel on a homemade go-cart. Or bogie, as we called them when I was even smaller than I am now. Listen to this British Library recording and see if you agree:


I think that’s enough of ground game; let’s go and have a listen to under ground game. I do not on the whole lie on the lawn with my ear glued to the turf. Who knows what might crawl in? However, if I did pluck up the courage and got lucky above a mole run, I might hear all sorts of noises from our velvety worm hoovers. Moles can produce some astonishingly loud squeaks. The main reason for this is indignation. They are solitary creatures who will not tolerate the neighbours trespassing in their tunnels. If this should happen then the imposter will be squeaked at and if they do not withdraw then it’s nipper time. For those of you not clicking on the link, the mole sounds like a really angry songbird. To be precise a small brown job (SBJ for the experts) that has just been surprised by a large hungry cat. See what you think of this British Library recording: https://sounds.bl.uk/Environment/British-wildlife-recordings/022M-W1CDR0001383-1100V0

It’s not only under the lawn where strange sounds arise. If you get close to a big old oak stump you might hear a short rattle repeated once or twice. This is not a trapped woodpecker but the grub of a stag beetle They rub their legs together to make the short rattle. It is an odd thing to do as the grubs don’t have ears as such so cannot hear other grubs making the sound. However, they can feel the vibration the stridulation makes. It has been observed that they will make the noise to keep other stag beetle grubs away especially when they are making their pupal chamber. I guess they don’t want to become a grub snack whilst they are in the middle of the complicated business of metamorphosis.

The sound of these grubs is a bit like a Mallard heard quaking in the distance, as evidenced in this recording on the Insect Week 2021 website: https://www.insectweek.co.uk/file/21

As we wander away from the old oak stump we might come to a tranquil pond. There might be swallows chirruping as they snatch insects off the surface. You might hear a mother duck telling her ducklings to keep hidden or the drone of a Zeppelin-sized dragon fly as it zips past. What you are probably not aware of is that it is just as noisy under the water. Scientists have recently started dipping their hydrophones under the water in ponds and been amazed by the results. You can hear clicks, buzzes, gurgles, and our old friend “pops” This true cacophony is caused by newts clicking, hissing, and squeaking; water boatmen singing; and the oxygenating of plants popping, to name a few of the culprits. Have a listen if you can; it is amazing:


The sounds the wild things make are truly extraordinary and I should think as science advances that we will discover a raft of other fascinating noises.

I just hope Old Tom isn’t reading this as he might up his game from “pops” and “bangs” to something that really will have me darting for the light switch.

For more wildlife recordings, visit the British Library website: https://sounds.bl.uk/environment/british-wildlife-recordings