Around the end of 2015, I was looking for organizations whom I could make a Social Tape release for to build awareness of their work. The International Crane Foundation (ICF) was one of the few who showed interest in this project. Headquartered in Wisconsin, the organization has a branch here in China in the Nanchang University Campus in Jiangxi province. The focus of their work in China is to survey the population of cranes in and around the Lake, most notably the Siberian White Crane. With around 4,000 Siberian White cranes in the world, it is classified as an endangered species. Every winter about 95% of the Siberian White Crane population, along with hundreds of thousands of other birds, come from all over the world to winter at Poyang Lake. The low water levels during this time of year provide an abundant food supply of shellfish, fish, and other crustaceans for the new visitors. Land that was previously underwater earlier in the year emerge and serve as dry gathering places for many of the birds to nest or socialize. The Poyang Lake reserves and its wildlife are protected by the Chinese government in compliance with other international agreements.
The following is a project diary that documents the timeline of my visit to Poyang Lake. It tells the story surrounding each track and includes images to help you visualize the environment where it was recorded.
November 2015- November 2016
I sent my first email in November 2015 and was put in touch with Jim Harris who is the Senior VP / East Asia Program Director of the ICF. He then connected me with Li Fengshan and Jin Jiefeng of the Poyang Lake team based at Nanchang University. As it was already spring, they suggested that I come next December (2016) when most of the birds would arrive again. I agreed and laid it to rest until November 2016 when I began to make the final arrangements for my visit on December 5-9.
The day I arrived I met with Jin Jiefeng to plan a reasonable schedule where I would be able to record several key locations where the crane may be gathering. We looked at a satellite map of the area and decided that the Poyang Lake reserve area would be a good starting point.
Before this point I was quite ambitious with my expectations of specifically recording birds and wildlife, which is something I have never really done before. While the office has video footage of the White Crane in the area, basically the crane just flies wherever and whenever it wants to which made sightings rare. After the meeting, I gave in to the fact that I would probably never see the Siberian White Crane but I decided that it didn’t matter. With all the environmental concerns surrounding the lake and the impact we have on migratory wildlife, the scope of this album was much bigger than a single species. I would document the wildlife and beauty of the area and if I see the White Crane then it would be a bonus for me. During my recordings, I experienced the beauty of these locations in places that not your average visitor would go. I was blessed with the best sunny weather that the lake had at that time of year. It was beautiful.
They had arranged a driver for me for my time there- the amazing Mr. Chen who knows the lake like the back of his hand. He is a Nanchang native and speaks the dialect which really comes in handy in remote areas. He has been driving professors, students, tv crews, etc. to the lake for many years. His expert knowledge of the area is the reason that I got the material that I did. 感谢陈师傅！
We departed the hotel at Nanchang University and drove directly to Shahu (沙湖) where I got my first taste of the scale of the area. Big. Very big. The lake was so big no other shore could be seen from where I stood and that wasn’t even the biggest one in the area.
We said hi to the local authorities in the adjacent fishing town and went down to the shore. The lower water level meant that the shore now was about 1 kilometer from where it usually is. Fishing boats were intentionally abandoned, scattered on the mud flats waiting for the rainy season to come during spring. I could see the water glistening in the distance as I picked up my gear and started trudging towards it. Then things started getting real sticky, real fast. The ground started to become real muddy and it was a struggle to carry my equipment and not to fall at the same time. I set my sights on a stranded boat and used that as my base to connect all my equipment.
For this recording, the equipment I used are as follows:
- I had recently purchased an original Sony TC-D5 from 1978 complete with the purchase receipt (from a store in Paris) box and accessories. It was probably the most beautiful recorder I have ever seen (probably also because of my Sony recorder fetish) and in great condition.
- I had some great Type 1- 60 Minute Sony and TDK tapes left over from my Matthew Shepard Social Tapes recording I did in October (2016).
- Sound Devices 302 mixer. The three inputs are perfect for this application since I could link the ORTF or Stereo mics and still have control over the mono parabolic in the mix to the tape recorder.
- Wildtronics Stereo Parabolic Mic (Sometimes I used the mono parabolic with ORTF combination and sometimes as the stereo parabolic)
- (2) Sennheiser MKH 8090 in a Rycote ORTF blimp.
I used the parabolic and ORTF microphones together on a previous job and the combination was great especially for recording sound over great distances.
After I was all connected, I jumped back in the mud and was only able to safely walk another 20 meters from the boat. The mud was already up to my knees and I almost fell a few times! I don’t remember if I could hear anything at that point with my own ears. I could see silhouettes of birds in the distance, probably another 100 meters from where I stood. What I could see was what I could hear. After I put on the headphones it was another world. The parabolic brought me right next to them. It was amazing. I recorded several takes (unreleased) and made my way back to the boat and to the car. I was filthy!
Mr. Chen recommended to buy some proper rubber boots in the nearby village after we ate lunch. Lunch was delicious with locally grown vegetables and fish from the rivers. A lot of the cuisine is based on water grown vegetables and grasses, and fish.
We went to Banghu (蚌湖) after lunch and drove along this beautiful grassland as far as we could go. We met some fisherman in their hut and asked if there were any white cranes at Banghu to which they said ‘no’. We went to another lake where I did another recording (unreleased) and Mr. Chen said that if we go back to Shahu at 4pm we might be able to see some White Cranes and even if we didn’t there would be a lot of birds eating their dinner there.
We went back and the winds had died down, the sun was setting, and there were more birds than the morning. Armed with my new rubber boots in the middle of knee deep mud I recorded Track #1.
Afterwards, we went back to the nearby town, ate dinner, and stayed at a local hotel for the night.
We got up early and drove directly to Changhu (长湖) which was down a ‘hidden’ gravel road to a small house and a beautiful morning view of the lake beyond it. I cut through the grass to the shore and sat down to record Track #2. The sounds of the distant road and the livestock of the house behind me could be heard in the track along with a few birds looking for food at the shore.
Our next location took us down another dusty road along the shore of Dahuchi (大湖池) at the end of which was a local fishing farm. The fishing farm was built around a dam that acted as an overflow to an adjacent reservoir. At the dam were nets where the fish would be caught as they came through the dam. I saw a large gaggle of geese in the distance and wandered along the shore to get closer. Mr. Chen helped me carry my bag. The geese were on an island that was separated by a small man-made trench. Luckily there was an abandoned boat spanning the trench which I crossed. Mr. Chen decided not to cross over and waited for me to come back. Another lesson I learned was that birds are very wary of people. As soon as I jumped off the abandoned boat they started flying away. They went over a kilometer away and I could not even hear nor see them. I connected my parabolic to see what I could get and recorded Track #3. Some bugs were attracted to the parabolic dish which is the tapping you hear in the track.
As we were walking back, near the fishing farm, there were some small birds playing in the tall grass. This was the closest I got to any birds the entire trip. I told Mr. Chen I wanted to make one more recording and as he continued to the car, I recorded Track #4. You can hear the running water of the dam in the distance and the morning sunlight though the golden reeds.
Along the road we crossed paths with Professor Lan whom Mr. Chen often drives to the lake to gather data and samples of the vegetation. We arranged to meet him in Wuchengzhen (吴城真) for lunch and had a great conversation with great food. Mr. Chen recommended we go to Zhonghuchi (中湖池) to see what’s there.
From Wuchengzhen, one could take a ferry to several lakes in the area. The tourist season was just starting and the busses and cars of tourists were already crowding the port. Mr. Chen knew that further down the river was a small ferry that could take us to across the river without the crowds of people. We found the dock and the ferry driver took us across the river in our own personal boat. Wuchengzhen is along a river that has heavy boat traffic. It was quite noisy.
After we landed on the opposite shore I climbed a berm and was confronted with a spectacular view. A grassland as far as the eye could see. I climbed down the other side and trampled through the tall grass that got shorter towards the middle of the plain. The captain followed me and told me that the ground we were walking on is usually underwater in spring. Amazing. In the distance, I could make out the white silhouettes of cranes other big birds and got as close as I could without scaring everyone away. I laid down my waterproof mat, set up my mics and recorded Track #5. The parabolic could pick up birds taking flight over the water and the ORTF was great at capturing birds that would fly overhead and make their calls. The sense of space is immense in this track. You can also hear the hum of the boat traffic behind you.
We got back to the car and I recorded Track #6 of the boat traffic along the river. Mr. Chen recommended that we go to Nanjixiang (南矶乡) to record the next day as the landscape there was much smaller in scale with many smaller lakes and would have a different feel from the area where we were. We drove towards Nanjixiang and stayed the night in a nearby town.
The next morning, we woke up early to be met with the thickest fog I have ever seen with less than 10 meters of visibility. Mr. Chen said that this is typical for this time of year when the cold air and warm air mix in the morning. We got to the entrance to the reserve and our first stop was the visitors center at the entrance facing Zhanbeihu (战备湖). The visitor’s center had an elevated platform that overlooked the lake. For people coming here to ‘see’ something this would have been a huge disappointment. For me, it was exactly what I was looking for. Under the cover of heavy fog, I got the most intimate recordings on this trip. The bird calls were as loud as ever as they were unknowing or perhaps uncaring of my presence. The colors of the landscape was muted through the fog and had an ethereal quality. It was the perfect conditions to record Track #7.
We drove around the roads in the area a bit before stopping at Baishahu (白沙湖). What I saw from top to bottom was: fog, grass, road. “There are birds there”, said Mr. Chen. “How far is the water?”, I asked. “About 10-20 meters away. Just keep walking.” As I disappeared into the fog, between the road and the water, the sound of birds got louder and louder. I stepped as carefully as I could so as not to startle the birds which were probably what sounded like 20 meters away. Through the fog I saw a sliver of land about 2 meters wide that extended far into the lake from the shore. I walked about 50 meters out, I pointed my microphones into the fog and recorded Track #8. Visibility was zero and my position was only discovered by birds flying directly over me. It truly was the climax of the trip. I walked back to the car with the biggest smile on my face.
We eventually got to Nanjixiang (南矶乡) and found the last spot to record (unreleased). I again walked into the dense fog with my equipment. Passing some crayfish nets that have been left in the water from last season I walked further until it started to get muddy again maybe 100 meters from the shore. As I was setting up, the sun began to warm the air on the lake the fog began to let up, and within 20 minutes was almost totally gone revealing distant birds and the sun glistening on the water. What a perfect finale to a great adventure. Mr. Chen and I ate lunch and headed back to Nanchang where I cleaned off all the mud and guano on my equipment and (finally) had good night’s sleep.
The heavy fog came again the next morning and my flight was delayed for 5 hours until it cleared up at around noon. If you are coming to Nanchang from Shanghai, I highly recommend taking the train. I arrived in Shanghai tired but looking forward to the next step of this project.
Over the past few months I worked on the album on and off, digitizing audio, selecting tracks, and reselecting them. I don’t know why I sat on it for so long. I suppose I needed some distance from them, the memories were still too fresh in my mind and perhaps lacked that magical quality that was there when I had recorded them. Now, 7 months later, my memories distilled to those which would never be forgotten, I complete the album with the same emotion as when I was at Poyang Lake for the first time.
Thanks for listening.
Special thanks to: the International Crane Foundation, Jim Harris, Li Fengshan, Jin Jiefeng, Chen Chaolong for making this album possible.