The Microphone You Already Own

Nine days ago, Eric Ripma found an Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush singing on territory in Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota.  Assuming the bird is wild and arrived under its own power, it is furnishing a jaw-dropping record — only the third north of the Mexican border, apparently, over 1200 miles farther north than the species has ever been known to venture before.  (See Doug Backlund’s photos here.)

Right now I’m in a hotel in Newcastle, Wyoming, on a trip to chase the Nightingale-Thrush, but that’s not why I felt it was blogworthy.  Rather, I wanted to call attention to a blog entry by somebody else who saw the bird a few days ago.  Cyrus Moqtaderi’s post is mostly about the guilty pleasures of chasing rare birds,  but with a passing remark he sent a shiver down my spine:

I made a few rudimentary audio recordings with my camera’s microphone

Cyrus posted some of this audio to his blog; click on the link above and listen to his recording.  Considering that it was the audio track of a video made with what he called a “dinky point and shoot camera,” it’s really quite excellent.  It’s not going to win any awards from snobby audiophiles, but for the purpose of documenting a sound heard in the field, it’s surprisingly good.

These days, I think it’s safe to say that the majority of birders own a camera capable of taking a short video with an audio track.  That is to say, most birders own a camera with a microphone in it.

That bears repeating: most birders own a microphone.

On a weekly basis, people write me asking for my recommendations when it comes to a cheap starting kit for recording bird sounds.  Also on a weekly basis, I’ve receive mystery bird sounds sent to me for identification in camera-recorded videos.  It took me until now to realize that the second phenomenon might provide a partial answer to the first.  Maybe they won’t produce high-definition audio, but if even half of birders’ digital cameras have the power to match what Cyrus’s camera did, then these built-in camera recordings could help to fill a key gap in Joe Birder’s toolbox.

My ability to identify bird sounds mushroomed when I began recording audio.  There’s something about listening to a recording that you yourself made in the field that really helps set the mental glue, so to speak.  For this purpose, a camera video would work just as well as an expensive parabolic microphone.  Granted, it may not be the most efficient use of your memory card, but then memory’s cheap nowadays, isn’t it?  At the end of the day, if you’re really interested in audio, then by all means buy a recorder — the Olympus VN-5200PC is hard to beat for the price — but if you’re in the field for other reasons and find yourself in sudden need of an audio capture,  remember your camera.  It may be good for more than just boring old visuals.

Wish me luck on that Nightingale-Thrush!

3 comments to The Microphone You Already Own

  • In addition to recording video with sound, many point-and-shoot cameras can record “voice memos” with a still photograph. I often take a still photo of the habitat, the page in the bird book, or some other image to remind me of the bird in question (if I can’t take the bird’s picture), and then record a “voice memo” of the bird singing. The convenient part of doing this is that your recording is made directly into .mp3 or .wav format, or some other audio format that you can then use in audio software.

    I’ve also recorded birds using the voice memo function on my mp3 player. One night when broadcasting owl calls in a valley here in Utah, a friend heard a Whip-poor-will. This was later accepted as the first state record, thanks in part to the recordings I was able to make on the spot with just my Sandisk mp3 player.

  • Bob Zilly

    Great post Nathan. It’s really cool how people are incorporating the latest electronic gadgets in birding. You also mentioned how people ask you about getting started recording bird sounds. I think digital voice recorders are a great way to get started for not too much money and they are very simple to operate. Since I bought my Olympus VN-5200PC they’ve come out with more models including a VN-6200PC, which has more memory for about the same price.
    http://tinyurl.com/2343e37

    And I have a friend who recently purchased a different model that is described as an MP3 player/voice recorder. You could put all your birdsong CD’s on it as well as record your own sounds. It has better specs than mine, can record in MP3 format, and you can use rechargeable batteries that you can charge via USB. Its the Olympus DM-420. http://tinyurl.com/34x39al

    With either of those two you can make decent recordings of many nearby birds. If you want to step up in terms of sound quality they are many recorders on the market but once again I’m using an Olympus model, the LS-10. It has excellent audio specs and has many user configurable parameters. So far I’m only using the built-in mics so it really works best with nearby or louder birds but the performance is great. http://tinyurl.com/2oz8fx
    I think this would be a good intermediate step between voice recorders and more expensive equipment.

    For information on other brands or purchasing just do a search on digital voice recorder or digital audio recorder or try Amazon or your favorite online source.
    Now get recording!

    bz

  • Nathan Pieplow

    Update: I saw and recorded the Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush in South Dakota on 20 July. Unfortunately, there was lots of stream noise in the canyon, but I got some decent recordings. You can hear a few at Xeno-Canto here.