The Fall Challenge

I’ve noticed that an awful lot of nature sound recordists in North America have traditionally focused on recording in the spring and early summer.  If you browse the Macaulay Library catalog, or the Borror Lab‘s recordings, or Xeno-Canto‘s North American collection, you’ll see exactly what I mean.  The vast majority of recordings are made from April to June, with a fair number from March and July as well.  Late winter (January-February) is an underrepresented period, but it pales in comparison to the period from August to December, when it seems like almost nobody goes out with a microphone.

We’re heading into that traditional “dead period” now, and I just want to point out that no matter where you live, there are some terrific opportunities for recording (and listening to)  some of the most interesting and worthwhile bird sounds of the entire year!  For example:

  1. Begging calls, begging calls, begging calls. I said it thrice because I believe it’s one of the most shamefully neglected classes of bird vocalization, and the Fledgling Project agrees with me.  You won’t have to browse many Birds of North America “Sounds” accounts before finding the phrase, “development not described.”  That’s because not enough microphones have been pointed at squalling baby birds, whether in or out of the nest.  This is one of the easiest ways for an amateur recordist to make a big contribution to our knowledge of birds.
  2. Juvenile subsong. In many species of bird, youngsters have already started to practice their songs, in a developmental process akin to the “babbling” of human babies.  The results can be fascinating, beautiful, and scientifically significant.
  3. Shorebird calls. Millions of shorebirds are headed south right now throughout North America, and some of them will still be southbound as late as October.  Shorebirds are traditionally pretty poorly represented in audio collections, but there is a lot to learn about their calls also.
  4. Fall song. Some birds can occasionally sing as much on fall migration as they do on spring migration, or even more, with vireos being a great example.  Phoebes and other flycatchers can occasionally give variable renditions in fall of their typically stereotyped spring songs.  How and why does fall singing differ from  spring singing?  More recordings would help answer the question.
  5. Nocturnal flight calls of fall migrants. Many people have jumped on this bandwagon in the East in recent years, and some are starting to do so in the West — in fact, in just two weeks I’ll be co-leading a workshop on nocturnal migration here in Colorado that filled up some time ago.  I know people in several states who have just begun putting microphones out to capture the sounds of the overnight flight, and there are a lot of online resources to help people get involved.  Start with Oldbird.org, the website of Bill Evans*, one of the original flight call gurus, where you can listen to flight calls online and learn how to build your own cheap nocturnal sky microphone. You can hear more flight calls from the East on the websites of Steve Kelling., A.P. Martin, and Matt Orsie,  and get updates on western nocturnal migration by following Ted Floyd on Twitter.
  6. Winter specialties. Crossbills, juncos, American Tree Sparrows, Evening Grosbeaks, redpolls, longspurs, Snow Buntings, swans, geese, gulls, ducks.  And crossbills.  Need I say more?

If you already record sounds, don’t leave your microphone at home in the bottom half of the year!  Recordings from fall and winter are rarer, and therefore more valuable.  And if you don’t yet record, but have the wherewithal to start, now’s a great time!

*revision 8/18/2009: thanks to Ted Floyd for pointing out to me that Oldbird.org is Bill Evans’s website, not Michael O’Brien’s.

5 comments to The Fall Challenge

  • Paul H.

    Thanks for the post, Nathan. When I was first putting together my recording equipment, I found that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (Macaulay Library) website had some pretty useful information on equipment (mostly under “Related Links”):

    http://macaulaylibrary.org/inside/record/index.do

    It might be fun to periodically showcase some of the recording setups you and others have, just to get beginners an idea of the diversity of equipment and suggestions on getting started? Since I’m making the suggestion, I’d gladly contribute some photos, a recording or two, and a short blurb about what I have and how I use it.

  • Nathan Pieplow

    Paul,

    I think that is a great idea, and I know some others who will be interested. I’d love to put something like that together.

  • Charles Swift

    Hi Nathan – Do you have any citations for fall singing in vireos? This is something I have also observed and has been commented on recently on a couple western listserves but I can’t find any mention of it in for e.g. BNA Online. My impression is that this may be less common in Warbling Vireo than for e.g. the Solitary Vireo complex. Also interesting (and possibly related??) is that vireos sing late into the breeding season. Thanks, Charles.

  • Nathan Pieplow

    Charles,

    Good question. Here’s a useful paper I dug up with a quick search: it’s an old piece (1948) by Aretas Saunders, who wrote famously about bird songs, and although it doesn’t focus on vireos, it does have notes on the fall singing of several species, including (“Eastern”) Warbling Vireo. As you’ve noted, I hear fall song most often from members of the Solitary Vireo complex, often well south of the breeding grounds, and Saunders’ observations fall along somewhat similar lines.

  • Great blog! I’ve always been interested in bird sounds and don’t know why I haven’t tried recording them. You’ve sparked my interest and I’m heading over to the Macaulay Library to see how to get set up. Thanks.