Award-winning wildlife sound recordist has his ear to the ground

A doctor's passion for sound has turned into a full-time hobby which has seen his recordings featured in TV, film, theatre and audio productions

stelliott@btinternet.com Dr Simon Elliott at bat caves in Borneo
Dr Simon Elliott at bat caves in Borneo

Away from his work as a hospital consultant, Dr Simon Elliott has spent much of his time listening in to the conversations of others.

In fact, over the years it has developed into a full-time hobby.

His passion is recording the sounds of wildlife and the natural world, from birds and mammals to insects and the inhabitants of seaside rock pools.

In his professional life as a consultant radiologist at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle, he has been devoted to teaching and research in the field of medical ultrasound technology.

“The world of sound has been my life,” says Simon, who lives in Gosforth in Newcastle. The award-winning wildlife sound recordist has listened in to creatures across six continents, as well as regular trips out in his home patch of Northumberland, especially Kielder Forest and the coast, and the North Pennine moors.

His aim is to record the “vocabulary” of his subjects from their perspective, which can mean taking his microphones up trees and cliffs or across open water.

He has recorded osprey chicks in the nest and the heartbeats of golden eagles in their eyries – under licence - and tuned into the “chatter” of otters enjoying the spring sunshine.

Simon’s hydrophones have picked up the rasping sounds of limpets feeding on algae in rock pools which he says, can be “deafening.”

He has just retired from a career of 35 years in the NHS and his full-time Freeman Hospital job, although he is now allocating time to working on research and development of ultrasound systems. Ultrasound has been a big step forward in medical early diagnosis and monitoring, with the use of sound pulses to build up pictures of targeted internal areas of the body. It ties in with the way animals like dolphins and bats use the same principle.

This is one of the aspects Simon will be exploring on Monday at the Sage Gateshead when he presents From Ducks to Doppler, which is billed as a celebration of music, wildlife and sound.

It is part of the three-day annual meeting on Tyneside of the British Medical Utrasound Society. But the 6pm event is also open to the public with tickets at £3.

Simon has always had an ear for what is going on around him. He studied music at GCE A-level, playing the piano, clarinet and guitar.

At the age of 13, his father gave him an early portable cassette recorder.

“I went out into the garden to record my first bird – the song of a chaffinch. I was hooked,” he says.

The foundation was already there. “I cannot remember a time when I was not interested in the natural world. I would potter about – I still love pottering – trying to observe and get close to birds and animals,” he says.

It is an interest which has taken him around the world. He has just returned from a trip to Borneo and Bali.

His favourite foreign locations include the forests, mountains and coast of the Pacific North West of Canada and the United States, the rainforests, and the Great Barrier Reef where he recorded the exchanges between wedge-tailed shearwaters in their burrows.

But closer to home he has waded chest-deep into a Northumberland lake to listen to little grebes and plugged in to the grumblings of eider ducks in Amble harbour.

He says: “I am fortunate to have lived and worked in the North of England for over 30 years, with relatively quiet woodland, hills and beaches within half an hour of home.”

But to achieve the right conditions for his recordings it still often means a dawn start before the intervention of human sounds such as aircraft, traffic or dogs.

The challenge is to work out ways of getting close to his subjects with minimal disturbance.

“I set out to record their conversations without them knowing that I and my equipment are there,” he says. “This can create enormous practical difficulties, like trying to record bird calls in close up on a wave-swept shore, placing a mic 20 metres up a pine tree, or abseiling down to a peregrine nest.”

His work has featured in more than 150 TV, film, theatre and audio productions, and he has lodged almost 7,000 recordings with the British Library Sound Archive, where they can be used for research and educational purposes.

Today, technology means that tiny differences can be detected in the individual calls of sea birds in big nesting colonies which, to the human ear, all sound the same.

There are also the specific calls birds use – for example to warn of the presence of a bird of prey on the wing or a ground predator.

“I can walk into a wood and know what is going on,” says Simon.

“There is always something making a sound somewhere, always a new recording to be made.”

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