Looks like I missed this news when it came out at the end of 2012, but I just found out about it via the Xeno-Canto forum. The Florida Museum of Natural History has put its huge collection of bird sound recordings online in digital format for the first time. According to the museum website, the collection contains over 20,000 recordings of about 3,000 bird species, making it the Western Hemisphere’s second-largest collection in terms of species and third-largest in number of recordings. It’s the biggest single addition to the internet’s bird sound collection in many years.
I spent a little time cruising around the website, and I have some suggestions for better browsing:
Get your scientific names ready! The database doesn’t contain English names at the moment. And even the scientific names are sometimes way out of date — for example, all the California and Canyon Towhee recordings are lumped together under the old name Pipilo fuscus. (California Towhee became Pipilo crissalis in 1989, and Melozone crissalis in 2010, so the name P. fuscus is oooooold).
When you want to look through some results, you might want to click on “Table Layout” instead of “Vertical Layout.” The Vertical Layout puts the genus in bold letters at the top of each search result, but buries the species name way down in a list of information, third from the bottom. It’s annoying. Table Layout makes it much easier to browse search results that contain multiple species. Plus it shows you more information about each recording, if you use the horizontal scroll bar at the bottom of the screen.
Overall, it’s great to see this collection online, and I’ll be visiting it regularly from now on.
The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has just released what it’s calling the “Master Set” – the most comprehensive audio guide to North American bird sounds ever published. Totalling 4938 mp3 files of 735 bird species, it’s a doozy of a download – even broken up into three parts and zipped, it still totals a whopping 4.71 gigabytes of audio. It’s a significant development for North American birding. (Full disclosure: I participated in part of the review for this project, and four of my recordings are in it.)
The Master Set has been in the works for a number of years now. It’s intended to be a distillation of the finest audio clips in the collection of the Macaulay Library, the world’s greatest avian audio archive, comprising some 150,000 separate recordings, about 30,000 of which are from North American birds. Remember the gargantuan government warehouse in the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark? That’s how I’ve always pictured Macaulay – a trove of hidden treasures, a giant haystack made of needles. The process of creating the Master Set involved reviewing the majority of these recordings in an attempt to find examples for every vocalization type of each species, including individual and regional variations whenever possible. “This is a celebration of what the recording community has given us,” says Macaulay audio production engineer Matt Young.
Because it extended across many years (and the tenures of multiple Macaulay Library employees), this review process has resulted in many inconsistencies and a few errors in the set. As a result, Macaulay is describing the Master Set as “a work in progress,” one which they intend to correct, update, and expand over time. To purchase the first complete draft of this work in progress, you’ll pay $49.99 – a special introductory price that will rise by $10 at some point soon, according to the website. The Master Set is neither perfect nor complete, but it is the most comprehensive audio collection of its kind to date.
The sound files are accompanied by photos that pop up when you play the audio on many devices – a nice touch. The recordings are accompanied by a short booklet with some introductory text and a list of audio and photo credits, but no additional information about the individual sound files. Some of this information, including the Macaulay catalog number of the source recording, can be found in the MP3 data tags for each file. As you might expect, not all species are covered in the same detail. There are 39 cuts of Carolina Wren, but “only” four of California Thrasher. (I put “only” in quotes because most commercially available audio collections don’t even give you four cuts per species.) This gives you some idea of the scope of the work.
For those who don’t want to wade through 22 Tufted Titmouse cuts simply labeled “song,” there’s a smaller, more manageable version of the collection: the Essential Set, comprising 1376 cuts of 727 species, for $12.99 (that price to rise by $7 at the end of the introductory offer period).
If you find errors while exploring the collection, send an email to MLproductions@cornell.edu. I presume you can use the same address to write with kudos for getting this massive undertaking off the ground — it’s been a long time coming!
Announcing the Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds
I am thrilled to announce that I have signed a book contract with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to produce The Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds, the first comprehensive guide to the sounds of North American birds. In addition to species accounts that will illustrate each sound of each species with spectrograms, the book will feature an innovative audio index that will make it possible to look up unfamiliar sounds in the field.
The guide will be published in two volumes, Eastern and Western. The tentative publication date for the Eastern volume is 2015, with the Western volume following about nine months later. The books will be accompanied by thousands of streaming online audio clips from the collection of the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, supplemented by my own recordings and those of Andrew Spencer in addition to a number of other fine recordists. The streaming audio will be freely and publicly accessible on the internet. The Macaulay clips, at least, will be downloadable for an extra fee.
So far, this book project has been nearly a decade in the making. It was in 2003 that I first conceived of an index to bird sounds as the basis for an audio field guide. At the time, I was completely unqualified to realize my vision, but I set out to do it anyway, hoping against hope that nobody would beat me to it. Virtually everything related to bird sounds that I’ve done since — including this entire blog and every single one of my recordings — has been done with this goal in mind.
I set out to write this book because I desperately wanted to use it in the field. I’ve never had the supersonic ears of a Ted Floyd or the tape-recorder memory of a Ted Parker; memorization-based approaches haven’t worked all that well for me. I wanted a book that would contain vast quantities of bird sound knowledge so that my head didn’t have to.
Bird sounds needed
As I go through the painstaking process of researching the sounds of each species, I regularly find out about sounds that are not represented, or poorly represented, in the audio collections I have access to. I have created a Google spreadsheet with a preliminary list of the sounds I still need recordings of (or better recordings of). Some of them are obscure and rarely heard, but some of them are easy — the kind of thing I could record on an average day in my neighborhood if I had a little more free time. The list is regularly updated as my research progresses, and it will be permanently linked under “Bird Sounds Needed” at the top of the page.
If you record bird sounds, please take a look — and if you think you might be able to help me out, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Exotics tend to have a bad rap among North American birders.They’re either disparaged, or more often, ignored entirely.This is a bit of a shame – they’re not “bad” birds, so to speak.It isn’t their fault they’re introduced to places far from their home range.But something about them makes them slightly distasteful to the majority of us.And I’ll admit there have been times when I’ve fallen into the same boat.I’ve even flatly refused to go up into the Ruby Mountains of Nevada to twitch Himalayan Snowcock.But when I was offered the chance to go to Florida to get recordings of a number of target species, including exotics, I jumped at the chance.
Part of that was a chance to go to Florida, which offered the largest block of birds I haven’t recorded before.But I’ll admit I was a bit curious to record exotics as well.Almost nobody has spent effort on documenting their vocalizations in their introduced ranges, and it would be a challenge.
So what follows below will be the very first earbirding trip report, of my trip to Florida.
A goodly portion of my time was spent in the, ahem, noisy environs of Miami getting recordings introduced species.Some of these will be very familiar to the ABA birder: Red-whiskered Bulbul, Budgerigar, or Common Myna, for example.Others have received some press recently, but tend to fly more under the radar: Purple Swamphen, Mitred Parakeet, etc.And some very few people ever even think about: Egyptian Goose, Indian Peafowl, even Red Junglefowl.
Common Mynas (Acridotheres tristis) have become quite common in southern Florida.They can be surprisingly hard to hear, though – during the day they tend not to make too much noise, and they usually occur in very urban areas.But a pre-dawn spent in a deserted parking lot in Kendall got me some good cuts of their cool songs:
Hill Mynas (Gracula religiosa) are the cooler, bigger cousins of Common Mynas.Not only do they have looks going for them, they are probably the coolest sounding exotic in Florida.Here are a couple of recs of a pair duetting at Matheson Hammock:
Recently getting some press for their remarkable expansion into the wetlands of South Florida are the big ugly cousins of Purple Gallinule, Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio).In their native range they’re known as raucous, noisy birds, but in Florida they are surprisingly quiet.I had to work on this species for a while before I found a pair that would vocalize, but when I did I was able to get a good representation of their repertoire:
Parrots feature prominently in the introduced avifauna of Florida. Parrots are the perfect birds to record in noisy urban environments – they tend to be gregarious, fairly easy to find, and LOUD. That is a huge advantage when having to deal with lots of background noise. I was able to get recordings of a number of species, established and not so established. Some of the species below are ABA countable (like White-winged Parakeet (Brotogeris versicolurus) and Budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulatus)), but are actually fairly local and hard to find to nearly gone, while others that are not yet countable (like Mitred (Aratinga mitrata) and Nanday (Nandayus nenday) Parakeets) are much more well established:
Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiaca) is a surprisingly common introduced bird that most ABA birders haven’t even heard of.Luckily they’re quite noisy:
Red-whiskered Bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus) has gotten a lot of attention due to the fact that it’s ABA countable.But despite this, it is actually quite a bit harder to find than many non-countable exotics.It is also rather difficult to get recordings of, and the best ones I managed were of a juvenile bird.I did also manage to get one recording of call from an adult, but no song.
Stay tuned for part 2 of the trip report, which will follow in a few days…
My friend Jason Beason, the eminent Black Swift researcher, appeared today on Colorado Public Radio’s daily news show Colorado Matters, reporting on the recent breakthrough in Black Swift research. The producer used my recording of Black Swifts at the beginning of the segment. You can listen to the entire interview on the CPR website.
My recording of a Least Sandpiper also opened a BBC radio segment back in December, in an article on the crazy wave of vagrant birds that Britain had last year (including Least Sandpiper). Unfortunately, you can’t listen to that show online — the BBC doesn’t roll that way — but you can read an online version of the article you’re interested in the boring old human-speech part of the broadcast. (They didn’t bother transcribing what the Least Sandpiper had to say.)
For the record, I gave permission for the use of my sounds in these broadcasts at no cost, and without attribution. I’m just happy to get bird sounds into radio listeners’ ears!
It was one of the last North American bird species to be described to science, in 1857. Its nest was not found until 1901. The first audio recording of its voice was not made until 1993. And every summer, across most of its breeding range, it is the last species to arrive from the south, often not appearing until the end of June.
But most remarkably of all, it was the only North American migratory bird to enter the 21st century with the location of its wintering grounds still a complete mystery.
By any measure, Black Swifts are bizarre. They nest in the spray zone of waterfalls, sometimes behind the water, so that juveniles may never have dry feathers between hatching and fledging. They take to the air before dawn, spend the entire day foraging for flying insects at altitudes so high that they often cannot be seen with the naked eye, and frequently do not return to the nest until after dark. Then they get up several times during the course of the night to regurgitate insects for their only child, who sat hungry and wet at home all day.
The high-flying habits of Black Swifts make them almost impossible to track during migration. The parents stay at the nest until the chick is old enough to fly in August or September, and then they vanish, not to be seen again until the following May or June. A few anecdotal observations and a couple of specimens have suggested that Black Swifts may migrate south along the California coast, and that at least some reach Costa Rica or Colombia in migration. But no observations, specimens, or band recoveries have ever revealed where the bulk of the population spends the winter. The species is not large enough to carry satellite radio trackers or transmitters, so the mystery has seemed destined to persist, barring a major advance in technology.
But in 2009, a group of researchers from Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory caught four Black Swifts in Colorado and fitted them with geolocators. Geolocators are not radio transmitters or satellite recievers, but rather primitive devices — just a light sensor, a digital clock, and a tiny memory chip. All they do is record the time of sunrise and sunset each day. But that’s all the information one needs to reveal where the bird has been. The time of local sunrise, measured against GMT, allows you to estimate your longitude — that is, what time zone you’re in. The length of the day, combined with the calendar date, tells you your latitude — that is, how far north or south of the equator you are.
There’s just one problem — since the geolocators can only record data, not transmit it, the only way to find out from the device where it’s been is to recapture the exact same bird a year after you saddle it with the tiny light-sensing backpack.
Knowing that Black Swifts have a very high fidelity to their nesting sites, the RMBO team hung mist nets at the two places where they had outfitted birds with geolocators the year before. It took three different trips over the course of the summer, but they managed to recover three out of the four geolocators — a remarkable 75% success rate. Today they announced the results: those three Black Swifts carried their little backpacks all the way to South America and back — specifically to the Amazon basin of western Brazil.
At right are the maps from the article published today in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology by Jason Beason, Carolyn Gunn, Kim Potter, Robert Sparks, and James Fox. The white lines on the three maps are the northbound spring migration routes of the three swifts whose geolocators were recovered in 2010. Fall migration routes, unfortunately, could not be accurately mapped, because the period of fall migration too closely coincided with the autumnal equinox, when day length is equal at all latitudes, making it difficult to measure north-south movement accurately.
The colored blotches in the western Amazon are the areas where the swifts likely spent most of the winter. They’re blotchy because the geolocators aren’t terrifically accurate, and also because the swifts apparently moved around a fair amount during the winter. It’s possible that they roosted in caves or cliffs for the night and then roamed extensively during the day, but the researchers raise the tantalizing possibility that wintering Black Swifts may actually stay aloft 24 hours a day, based on the behavior of the related Common Swift of Eurasia, which may be on the wing for up to 9 months of the year — or even several consecutive years, in the case of non-breeding individuals!
The authors stress, however, that no conclusions about roosting behavior can be drawn from the current study. If the wintering birds do roost in dark crevices like they do in summer, they could skew the geolocator data, which is based on light levels. Extensive cloud cover could also be an issue. There’s evidence of at least some errors in the migration tracks at right: the researchers stress that bird 554 did not, in fact, probably take a quick jaunt to the Pacific Ocean off of Baja California after arriving in Colorado — that data point is likely due to some type of irregular shading event that messed up the geolocator data. Nevertheless, the generally strong agreement between the tracks of the three birds provide a reasonable level of confidence about the quality of the data.
The Black Swifts were estimated to cover between 210 and 240 miles per day, on average, during their southbound and northbound migrations. More study needs to be done to determine whether their migration routes and wintering areas are typical of Black Swifts, or whether they are specific to the Colorado population.
For more information on the remarkable Black Swift, check out the book The Coolest Bird by late, great Colorado swift researcher Rich Levad, published online by the American Birding Association.
Beason, J.P., C. Gunn, K.M. Potter, R.A. Sparks, and J.W. Fox. 2012. The Northern Black Swift: Migration Path and Wintering Area Revealed. Wilson Journal of Ornithology 124:1-8.
A new website for learning bird songs called Larkwire has just debuted, and it’s worth a look. The brainchild of Phil Mitchell, a cognitive psychologist, it features written identification tips by Michael O’Brien — one of the best earbirders in North America, if not the very best — and a nice collection of recordings of about 350 species from the collections of the Macaulay Library and the Borror Lab.
Larkwire is a web-based tool that requires no downloading and can run on several kinds of smartphones as well as standard web browsers. All the sounds are streaming. You can play the demo version with just seven songs for free, but to get access to most of the sounds, you have to purchase a “songpack.” The beginner songpack, with the 25 most common birds for whatever region of the country you’re in, costs $6.95. They’ve formulated 15 different beginner songpacks for different regions of the country, which is a great idea, but it’s been implemented with a pretty serious eastern bias. Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore are in three different regions (with 90% overlap in their most common birds) while Denver and Phoenix, despite their very different birds, have to share a region.
To get more songs, you pay more: the 100-species packs (eastern and western) cost $16.95. To get the “Master Birder” set of 344 species, you’ll have to fork over a whopping $49.95. On the bright side, 10% of every purchase goes toward conservation.
Once you’re loaded up with sounds, you can set Larkwire in motion in a couple different modes, all of which share the same basic idea: to introduce you to small sets of similar songs, and then quiz you repeatedly on those songs. Even if you catch on quickly and open up a new group of songs, Larkwire keeps tossing in old familiar birds along with the new ones so that your memory stays fresh. It also lets you customize the groups of songs you’ll be quizzed on in just about any way.
Larkwire draws immediate comparisons to the Peterson Birding By Ear series, which for the past 30 years has been the best song-learning tool on the market. Both Larkwire and Birding By Ear take a similar initial approach, grouping soundalikes together for direct cross-comparison. Sometimes Larkwire does this well, sometimes not-so-well. For example, the full “Master Birder” songpack has one group called “Musical & Buzzy,” another one called “Delicate, Musical & Buzzy,” and a third called “Elaborate, Musical & Buzzy.” The names and contents of all three seem rather odd:
Musical & Buzzy
Delicate, Musical & Buzzy
Elaborate, Musical & Buzzy
When it comes to the quality of the written notes that direct the user’s attention to the differences between songs in a group, Larkwire falls consistently short of the standard set by the Birding By Ear series. But it far surpasses Birding By Ear in its utility for easy cross-referencing, self-testing, and the matching of sounds with photos — and it also covers more species, with many more examples of each sound from across the continent. Even so, most of the Arizona, south Texas, and Florida specialties are omitted, and so are ALL waterbirds, even Mallard and Killdeer.
The bottom line is that if you’re interested in spending the time it takes to memorize hundreds of bird sounds, Larkwire is clearly one of the best tools out there to help you do so.
I do not count heards. To tick an antpitta is to see one well, otherwise we would have t-shirts with pictures of sonographs.
Long before my Earbirding co-author Andrew Spencer went to work for Iain Campbell at Tropical Birding, Andrew introduced me to Iain’s infamous quote about heard-only birds. Being audio fanatics, Andrew and I had a good laugh about it, and resolved to make spectrogram shirts just to spite him.
Someday I will get around to making a T-shirt with a spectrogram on it. But when I do, it won’t be to spite Iain Campbell. Nor will it be to champion the counting of “heards.” (That battle is winning itself — today’s birders are increasingly satisfied with other ways of encountering a bird besides simply laying eyes on feathers.)
When I finally make a spectrogram shirt, it’ll be to celebrate the striking beauty of bird sounds.
Spectrograms are the calligraphy of the natural world. A spectrogram is text, not in metaphor but in fact. As the written representation of an oral communication, a spectrogram is every bit as valid a text as the words on this page. The lines and curves that make up this sentence are standing in for sounds, as do the lines and the curves in a spectrogram — and in both cases, each line and curve carries meaning to those who speak the language in which the text was composed. The correspondence goes beyond the semantic and into the artistic. Some spectrograms match human calligraphy flourish-for-flourish in intricacy, tension, balance, and grace.
Just as each calligrapher’s work displays its own style, each vocalizing bird traces an individually unique spectrogram when it sings — its own personal signature in sound, the result of a fleeting, even if repeated, intersection of communicator, medium, and meaning. As the Wikipedia entry on Shodo (Japanese calligraphy) puts it, “For any particular piece of paper, the calligrapher has but one chance to create with the brush. … The brush writes a statement about the calligrapher at a moment in time.” In the same way, the spectrogram writes a statement about a bird at the moment it utters a sound.
To celebrate the beauty of spectrograms, I’ve multiplied the images in the header of this blog. Fans of the original Bobolink header need not worry — it’s still in the rotation — but now it’s been joined by seven other spectacular “specs” celebrating a wide variety of bird sounds from different families. One of these eight headers will load at random each time you land on the page. I’ve updated the “Headers” page to reflect this new diversity. If you enjoy them half as much as I do, you might get stuck here hitting “refresh” for hours.
I’ll leave you with two final masterful examples of graphic design, one by a bird and one by a human. I’ll let you sort out which is which.
Although it’s a bit of a stretch from what this blog is normally about (and late for Halloween), this is too good not to post. I just got the photos from my friend Carol Beardmore that she took this summer on the Western Field Ornithologists / Sonoran Joint Venture expedition to the Sierra de Alamos / Rio Cuchujaqui Protected Area near Alamos, Sonora, Mexico. Carol and I were stationed for a week at El Cajon, a mid-elevation site in the tropical deciduous forest, where temperatures reached 115 degrees on several days when we were there. To beat the heat in the afternoons, we headed to an amazing swimming hole about a mile from camp, where a large, deep, permanent pool of sparkling blue water stretched back into a flooded slot canyon. Swimming back into the shade of the canyon, we would find the water getting quite cold in a hurry, and before long the canyon got so narrow that we could touch both walls at once — but not the bottom, because the water was far too deep. A little farther on, the canyon widened out again and a beach appeared on one side below a shallow cave at the bottom of the cliff. Getting out of the water, we saw the hallmark of the inhabitants of the cave:
Vampire bat guano is unmistakable: it’s the red-black color of dried blood, and it’s viscous, sticky, and pungent. The walls of the cave were liberally stained with this stuff, so we knew that vampires slept here. And when we approached the cave (really only a shallow grotto, no more than a couple of meters deep), a few bats flew out. It took multiple visits over a couple of days — and an inner-tube float trip with the camera equipment in a plastic garbage bag — but eventually, with Carol operating the camera and me holding the flashlight, we managed to get one of the cave’s residents to pose for a photo:
Of the three species of vampire bat, this one is the most widespread and occurs closest to the United States. It has been increasing in numbers and apparently expanding its range north in recent years, especially since humans have brought in large numbers of cattle, a favorite vampire food (beverage?).
For the record, this is the primary reason that I slept under a net while we were in Sonora.
I’ll admit I was crushed when Nathan wrote a feature for xeno-canto before I did. I have no one to blame but myself; it was pure laziness on my part that kept me from doing one. After I got over the bruised ego from him being first I got my act in gear and wrote one of my own. So if you want to read about the vocal variation in Band-winged Nightjars, check out my first xeno-canto feature.
Like Flycatchers and other suboscine passerines, Nightjars don’t learn their voices. So distinct vocal variations may well have taxonomic implications. In Band-winged Nightjar in particular there seems to be a good case for further study, and potentially splitting the species. For example, note how the differences in Whip-poor-will vocalizations recently played a role in the split of that species.
Finally, if any of you have recordings of Band-winged Nightjars you could upload to XC, especially of the decussatus, roraimae, or patagonicus subspecies that would be of great help!