Are There No Birds Singing In The Woods Today?

Listening: In-between Focusing and Blurring

“It is important to relize that focussing on something necessarily blurs something else…”[1] F.G Asenjo

I organised a sound activity for some of the children during the August session of Quarrymill Adventures. Each child was given a sound recorder and headphones, and asked to find and record different woodland sounds. RSPB Volunteer Katie, even helped to make a woodland xylophone for the children to play and record!

I asked one child to record the sound of a bird singing. After a few minutes, the child came running back and informed me that no birds were singing in the woods today. I was slightly baffled and I stopped for a moment to focus on listening for birds. I heard Crows’ cawing, a Robin chattering, and a Woodpigeon cooing in the distance.

“Can you hear the Crows?” I asked. “No, I can only hear the water from the burn and the wind in the trees,” they replied. I needed to focus the child’s attention so I looked up into the trees.  I could see a Coal-tit sitting on a branch. “Can you see the bird in the tree? Listen! It is singing?” I questioned as I pointed towards the bird. “Yes, I hear it tweeting and moving on the twig,” the child replied, as they eagerly pressed the red button on the sound recorder. 

I began to reflect on the child’s experience of recording sound. I wonder if the sound of birdsong is so frequent; the sound of water and wind so predominant, they could not focus on listening to the bird singing. The action of listening is very different from hearing. Hearing is an ability we are born with; a passive process of our ears receiving signals at a subconscious level and requires very little concentration. Yet, listening is a skill we learn; an active process of interpreting the signals our ears receive at a conscious level and requires focus and concentration.

By introducing a visual element to the child’s perception (the bird in the tree) it allowed the child to focus on the birdsong.  The child needed to blur the background noise of the woodland. They turned their body towards the sound. Their eyes located the sound source to help the ears hear and their mind to focus, filter and interpret the signal.  This action presented the movement between focusing and blurring. For this child, the whole body was needed to focus and listen to a selected sound. This selective auditory attention is the ability to focus on a specific sound while filtering out other noises, it is also known as the cocktail party effect[2].


[1] Asenjo, F. G. (1988). In-between: an essay on categories, Center for Advanced Research in Phenomenology & University Press of America, Washington, D.C. P15

[2] Cherry, E. C. (1953). Some experiments on the recognition of speech with one and with two ears. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 25, 975–979.


Introducing Quarrymill, a Scottish Woodland in Scone Perthshire

A 360 video with immersive sound, please listen with headphones. (You may need to visit YouTube site to watch the 360 content)

The sound of our natural environment is a symphony of sounds, an encounter full of experiences, feelings, and gestures. This 360-video is being used as an experiment to explore the sounds at Quarrymill and introduce the experience to children.

The post-graduate researcher/RSPB Volunteer, Lise Olsen (University of Aberdeen) has been working with the Community learning officer, Miranda Shepard (RSPB Loch Leven) to deliver the Active Listening Project at Quarrymill in Perthshire.

This video is part of Lise’s research to


Determine what sort of impacts could be expected to give an understanding of how to create sound work that fits with the RSPB aims and objectives


• Discover how the new immersive 3D sound technologies can be used in RSPB’s public engagement and educational activities.

The sound includes field-recordings, a discussion from a local walker at Quarrymill and readings taken from the John Muir book ‘A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf’.

Our Tale is What Remains.

A walk with the people like you.

We move in-between the green, 

the green and dandelions on a quiet corner of a Paisley route.

Route, control and space.

We quickly walk, red brick, red brick to Sma Shot Lane. 

Past the Jesus is the reader sign and the weavers’ lion statue.

A stroll towards the New street.  

We stop and look up. I’m not sure about the cherubs.

Quick, march past Mr Kebab and the vertical lines of The Russell Institute.

The God of medicine twisting an enchanting tale… 

We pass a shopping trolley, coffee shop and an empty store.

An empty space with an empty corporation. 

I look for a sign, a blue Yes2 and a bus stop zone 

We arrive at the abbey, governed by order.

Move quietly and be considerate.

A timeline of happening from 1163, tick, tick, tick…

We hear about the monks who have been cleaning up for 400 years.

Dusting and washing tired feet. It’s time to leave.

Hello to Bonnie Fleurs and the High Street.

We wait at the curb for the red man to turn green.

The pace of the pack slows into the historic town. 

A voice cries “Before you go, remember, look up and search for Paisley pigeons.” 

We listen to the sound of the bird’s wings until…

our tale is what remains.

© Olsen 2019

This poem was created in response to a walking tour around Paisley in Scotland. The Tour was led by Dr. Alison McCandlish as a part of the ‘Participatory Methods and Affective Domains: Walking, Documenting and Sensing as Practice course delivered by the University of West Scotland.

A Walk With Nature

Quarrymill © Olsen 2019

Today, I explored Quarrymill by recording sound and capturing 360 images. During my visit, I started to think about how new media could help children explore the wilderness. I have decided to share one of my images with an another inspirational quote I found from John Muir.

“Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.”[1]


[1] Muir, J (1916). A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company The Riverside Press Cambridge.

Look Back & Look Foward

A visit to Hospitalfield’s greenhouse has reminded me of how busy my summer months have been. How some of my ideas thrived, fruited and flowered. Things tend to slow down a bit in the winter. Yet like the gardener, an artist needs to take stock of achievements. I need to get my ‘greenhouse’ in order, plan new ideas and plant new seedling-ideas for spring.

copyright © Olsen 2018

‘Teacher, teacher, teacher’

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” John Muir[1]

IMG_9278 2
Photo of John Muir, copyright © Olsen 2018

On the 30th of October 2018, I joined RSPB Scotland’s Miranda Shepard, at Quarrymill Woodland Park in Scone. As I walked along the woodland path I wondered what wildlife I would encounter. A flock of ‘excited-child-explores!’ They ran through the woodlands singing the Great Tit’s song. ‘Teacher, teacher, teacher’ echoed through the trees. The children under the guidance of the RSPB are studying four challenges to achieve the John Muir Award.

“Discover, Explore, Conserve, Share”

IMG_9286
Explorer Tracks, copyright © Olsen 2018

The sound in our natural environment is a symphony of sounds, an encounter full of experiences, feelings, and gestures. I intend to join Miranda on many more Quarrymill adventures. To observe a child’s experience of wild sounds. I wonder what they will hear? And will I find any in-between-ness here?

[1] John Muir Trust. (2018). Discover John Muir. Available: https://discoverjohnmuir.com/. Last accessed 1st Nov 2018.