In previous posts I’ve already shared some dawn and night choruses that I recorded during my stay at Queen Elizabeth National Park in the south west of Uganda. Featuring such diverse ecosystems such as savanna, humid forests, open lakes and wetland means the park has an equally diverse population of animal species. As soon as we arrived at our lodge, located in the middle of the national park, we could feel just how densely populated the park was simply by listening.
Our location was perfect. A small lake was located very close to my bungalow, and this was regularly used by the park animals as a drinking hole. They’d had very little rain in the weeks before our arrival, so the water level of the lake was very low. But this was soon to change.
On our second night we were having dinner in the main tent of our lodge when a huge storm rolled in. Torrential rain, wind and the most intense thunder and lightning display I had ever seen. It made for the perfect dinner entertainment. About an hour later the rain had stopped and the thunder and lightning had moved further away. Suddenly, from nowhere an incredible chorus of frogs and toads began. It was so loud that we could hear the intensity clearly from our dining tent, located the furthest from the lake. As soon as I heard what was happening I realised this was an opportunity that could not be missed – I had to record this!
I wanted to get as close as possible to the lake. Knowing that I would need to be accompanied (we were in the middle of the national park and elephants, leopards or hippos could cross your path at any point), I spoke to one of the guards and explained what I wanted to do. He saw my enthusiasm and was really happy to accompany me down to the edge of the lake so I could record.
Clouds still covered the night sky, so with no moonlight it was pitch black. The guard had a torch that he used to guide us down to the edge of the lake and to check for approaching animals whilst we were there. I setup my mic stand right on the edge of the water, ran a long cable further back and hit record. The chorus was incredible – extremely intense and very hypnotic. I stood still, listening on my headphones and was slowly induced into a kind of trance by the ebbing and flowing of the chorus. What happened next took me somewhat by surprise.
A few minutes into the recording a lightning bolt forked it’s way down to the ground. It was probably a few miles away but with everything so dark the strike lit up the entire lake in a bright purple for a split second. To my amazement, a hippo was standing in the middle of the pond, literally about 20 metres from where we were. The combination of my trance-like state being awoken in a split second by both the flash of lightning and realisation that a hippo had been standing 20 metres away was truly amazing. ADRENALINE! The thunder roll that followed also added a lovely end to the soundscape recording. I stopped recording and packed up my kit as the rain was falling heavily again by now. As we made our way back to the dining tent he guard told me he’d seen the hippo all along and was keeping an eye on it (just as well!).
The dominant voices we hear are those of the Guttural Toad (Bufo gutturalis) and the Rocket Frog. I find this to be a wonderful soundscape and it was a truly amazing experience to have recorded this. Listening back to the chorus is very hypnotic and takes me straight back to the edge of that lake. You can really get lost in the evolving waves and patterns. Interestingly, and we can hear this at the end of the recording, the moment the lightning struck (just before we hear the thunder in the recording), the insect chorus stopped completely, leaving just the toads and frogs. The insects then slowly picked back up again after about 30 seconds.
The following morning I headed back down to the exact same spot I had recorded at the night before. I was keen to see in daylight where the hippo had been. Things were much quieter with only a handful of frogs and toads left croaking and there were also many birds, including Hammer Cobs and Marabou Storks, walking around eating the frogs and toads, picking them off one by one. Although much less intense, it was an interesting soundscape with a lovely stereo image. With far fewer frogs and toads croaking, we clearly hear them on the left and the right. The dominant species were the Guttural Toad, as per the previous night’s chorus, and there are also some puddle frogs (Phrynobatrachus).
After breakfast we headed out for the day to explore the wonders of the Queen Elizabeth National Park and didn’t get back to our lodge until after dark. On arrival the frog and toad chorus was again in full swing. But this time the sound was completely different with at least two additional species. Whilst we still hear the Guttural Toad and the Rocket Frog that were ever-present the night before, we also hear Running Frogs (Kassina senegalensis) – the “boink” sounds – and a species of Afrixalus (possibly the Spiny Reed Frog). I captured this soundscape from the balcony of my bungalow and there were many fruit bats flying through, which can also be heard in the recording. To my ears this chorus felt otherworldly. Extremely intense and another incredible soundscape.
Some of the moments I have described in this post were amongst my most memorable from the time I spent in Uganda. In particular, the lightning strike / hippo encounter will stay with me for a very long time. As a recordist, I have long hoped to capture a frog/toad chorus soundscape and was over the moon to have had the opportunity to capture the choruses at the Queen Elizabeth National Park. I find it fascinating how a soundscape at the same location, of primarily the same species, can vary so much from one evening to another. It was an honour to have experienced this and will live long in my memory.
Special thanks to Robert C. Drewes, PhD for help on identifying the frog and toad species.
Photo courtesy of Ryanvanhuyssteen.