Local naturalist Geoff shares his passion for birds

Geoff Sample was born in Northumberland and thanks mostly to holidays with his grandparents had visited the Scottish Highlands from an early age.

Given his first elementary identification book at the age of seven he developed a passion for birds. His first proper bird book by Kirkman and Jourdain was beautifully illustrated showing birds in context. He was mesmerised by the painting of an osprey catching a fish and wanted to see this for himself. By the age of 11 he was a fully fledged naturalist hearing his first red grouse and going to Boat of Garten to watch capercaillies lekking in the Abernethy Forest. Even at that age he was analysing their strange clicks and subsong wheezing. He was lucky enough to see a rare great grey shrike at that age, hardly appreciating his luck.

Geoff’s musical career in London as a recording technician and guitarist was reaching its height when Geoff made a life-changing decision. He decided to leave London and settle up north to concentrate on bird recordings.

By now his audience at Duns SWT meeting was captivated by the sound recordings that Geoff played to accompany his talk. He was prepared to lie in a hide or in a sleeping bag under a plastic sheet for hours on end to achieve his recordings. He has recorded snow-buntings singing sweetly at 5am after rising at 3am to set up his equipment.

He tried at first to edit out background sounds such as running water or wind sounds but more recently he prefers to include these to give a sense of place. We listened attentively to his redstart song recorded in early June 1992 in Deeside in the Cairngorms. The accompanying photo showed a dusting of snow on the peaks beyond and there was total appreciation of a magical moment. This was followed by a dawn-chorus with redwings and a cuckoo insistently calling.

He had great difficulties recording the strange “waa waa” calls of the black throated diver when he wasted days in a hide in Morayshire. He was told that they only call on their first arrival and when a chick hatches. Geoff’s patience was rewarded when a chick was seen at 8pm on June 16, 1998, and the haunting calls echoed around.

Another favourite location is the Kyle of Tongue in Sutherland and we heard a wader chorus recorded more recently in late April 2007 (no midges). Geoff could distinguish the individual songs of ringed plover, redshank, common sandpiper with a climax from the greenshank. At A’Mhoine he recorded a snipe display realising that the drumming sound was produced by the ruffling of the stiff tail feathers.

As a musician Geoff had realised that some species improvise their songs or mimic other species. Starlings are well known for this trait but he has found it in blackcaps. A songthrush was heard to mimic the song of a red legged partridge.

Sincere thanks to Geoff for a fantastic evening.