Some people have asked how I learned to record bird sounds. The answer is simple: in 2004, I took the Macaulay Library’s annual Nature Sound Recording Course in California. If you’re interested in getting into audio recording in nature, I can’t recommend this course more highly.
The price ($945 in 2010) is tremendously reasonable, given that it includes all the personal attention, intensive training, transportation to local recording locations, amazing (though rustic) accommodations, and great food that you get for the entire week of the course. It’s held in a spectacular area of the country that allows participants to record in at least four completely different habitats in as many days, all the way from the sagebrush steppe and cattail marshes of the valley floor to the high-elevation spruce-fir forest and willow carrs of Yuba Pass and vicinity.
I arrived at the Sierra Nevada Field Campus never having wielded a microphone of any kind, never having worn recordist’s headphones, never having analyzed a single bird sound spectrographically. I didn’t own a single piece of recording equipment. Luckily, however, the Library was able to lend me some. In fact they lent me several different rigs over the course of the week, so that I gained experience recording in both analog and digital formats, through both parabolic and shotgun microphones. In a way, since I had already decided I wanted to save money to buy equipment, the workshop turned into a kind of extended test drive of potential future purchases. I was able to keep all the recordings I made, and they became the nucleus of the recording library I’ve been compiling since then.
If you get a chance to participate in this workshop, jump at it. If there’s one thing this world definitely does need in my opinion, it’s more people running around pointing microphones at birds!
The second installment in our occasional profile series spotlights Tayler Brooks of Brier, Washington, a newly active young recordist who was one of the expert sound ID panelists at the recent Western Field Ornithologists conference in Boise. Tayler grew up in western Washington and became interested in birds at the age of 12. For the past three years, bird sounds have been her favorite bird-related area of study. She has just started her second year in college, studying biology; she is very involved with various projects of the Puget Sound Bird Observatory and is a volunteer for her local Audubon chapter.
Here’s the equipment that Tayler uses:
recorder: Marantz PMD660 modified by Oade Brothers Audio to have quieter and more powerful preamps. In Tayler’s words, “I like it quite a bit actually, it does everything I want it to really well, I think. I feel like it’s a major improvement on the minidisc in most aspects, except most notably battery life (it goes through batteries like there’s no tomorrow).”
microphone: Sennheiser ME67 shotgun microphone with K6 (AA battery) power supply (thus, the same microphone that Paul Hurtado uses)
shockmount & windscreen: Rycote Softie
no headphones. “I feel I can better pinpoint and position the mic to be on target with the sound source using my unaided ear since my mic is less directional than a parabolic mic setup.”
Tayler had this to say about how she uses her equipment, and why:
With my growing interest in better understanding bird sounds, I now almost always take my recording equipment into the field with me whenever I’ll have a decent change at being around birds that are making noise. Like binoculars, it has become one of those things that feels strange to leave the house without when I’m bound for places in nature. One thing I’m always looking for when I record is capturing variation be it within species or populations, so I can be more familiar with the lesser known sounds of even common species. That in particular opened up a new world of discovery for me when I really started to take a closer look at the more complete set of sound a given bird species makes. Also, recording vocalizations from species groups not well represented, such as many types of waterbirds (gulls, ducks, and non-breeding calls of shorebirds) I also find exciting.
I asked her if she had any tips for beginners, and she responded:
Go recording solo or with small groups of people. This may seem obvious, but I thought I’d mention it since I often go out in search of birds with a group of five or so. The smaller the group (in many cases), the more you’ll be able to hear, and making cleaner recordings that require less editing is all the more easy.
Also, give recording in mono a try. It’ll save you a lot of memory space.
Here’s another quiz sound from Boise. Can you identify it?
Isn’t that the world’s most fantastic sound? And talk about distinctive. The panelists asked me if it was even a bird. 🙂 Yes, it’s a bird, and I recorded it in Orange County, California, in March 2009. Here are a couple more wonderful noises from the same species:
The bird is Red-crowned Parrot (Amazona viridigenalis), and as I quickly discovered when I arrived at Santiago Oaks Regional Park for a morning of recording, its bizarre and stentorian voice has become one of the characteristic sounds of suburban Orange County. On the freeway that morning I had seen large flocks of parrots coming off of night roosts, but I wasn’t able to identify them. In fact, I didn’t know which species of parrot I was dealing with at Santiago Oaks until well after I got home. My first tentative identification in the field was Lilac-crowned Parrot (Amazona finschi). Red-crowneds and Lilac-crowneds look surprisingly alike, and I didn’t have a way to compare their calls.
Why not? Because like other exotic species, parrots are woefully underrepresented in commercial bird sound publications. Bird Songs of California by Geoff Keller doesn’t include any parrots. The Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs (Western Region) has the Red-crowned, by dint of its establishment in South Texas, but it doesn’t have the Lilac-crowned. Nor any of the other thirteen parrot species that have “established naturalized populations” in California per the California Parrot Project.
Partly, of course, exotic birds are underrepresented in sound collections because they have traditionally been underrepresented in field guides and checklists. Before making a species “official,” state records committees and the AOU and ABA checklist committees want to be certain the birds have established enough of a population to ensure their long-term survival in their adopted land. And that’s valuable information.
In the meantime, however, whether their immigration status is legal or not, the exotic birds are unquestionably here, and they are unquestionably making noise. And that presents us with a great opportunity — first, to learn the voices of the newest members of our local avian soundscape — and second, to get recordings, sometimes right in our own backyard, of species that might be rare, little-known, and hard to encounter in their native range.
But wait. Are the recordings of exotic birds “legitimate”? “Authentic”? Are they going to sound the same as they do where they came from?
Well, that depends. If the species is one with an innate song, then the answer is almost certainly yes. The millions of Eurasian Collared-Doves in this country sound very much like the millions in Europe and Asia, because collared-doves don’t learn their songs; they inherit them genetically. Some birds do learn their songs, however, and those songs may well change, especially over time, if the soundscape changes around them. Most birds with learned songs are apparently genetically predisposed to pick out the sounds of their own species from the chorus and imitate those, but if they’re first- or second-generation immigrants in an avian Babel, they might not have many, or any, of their own species to learn from. Might the scarcity of conspecific tutors restrict the repertoire size of immigrants? Might it force them to innovate or imitate other species?
We don’t really know. And that’s one of the main reasons why exotics are worth recording. We could learn a lot about the cultural transmission of song by recording, say, Red-whiskered Bulbuls in Florida or California. We could learn a lot about the biological components of song by recording hybrid birds, which may be more frequent among exotics. We could learn a lot about what these birds sound like in their native ranges without having to travel there ourselves. Even the “lowly” House Sparrow might have a lot to teach us, if we set out to discover whether regional dialects have begun to appear in North America since the species first landed here in 1852.
So it’s time for another call to action from me. Record exotic birds. Record starlings, collared-doves, House Sparrows, House Finches, Ring-necked Pheasants, Common Mynas, partridges, parrots, and pigeons, because they’re slipping under the radar and they have a lot to teach us. In common parlance, “exotic” is the opposite of “boring,” and I think that’s the way it should be with birds as well.
In response to my last post, Paul Hurtado suggested that I periodically profile recordists and their equipment, as a service to beginners and those shopping for new gear. I loved the idea, and since it was his (and he volunteered), I’m starting with a profile of Paul himself.
According to the bio he sent me, Paul grew up roaming the wild lands around Pueblo, Colorado in search of all things spineless, scaly, slimy or feathered. Since graduating from the University of Southern Colorado, he has been working on his Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics at Cornell University, using mathematical models to study the ecology of infectious diseases.
Here’s the run-down on Paul’s recording gear:
Microphone: Sennheiser ME67 shotgun microphone with K6 (AA battery) power supply (purchased on eBay for around $250-$300)
Shockmount & windscreen: homemade. The shockmount for the microphone is fashioned out of PVC pipe, flat aluminum stock, screws and wingnuts from the hardware store, plus shock cord from an outdoor store. The windscreen consists of men’s dress socks. (Editor’s note: homemade shockmounts are really cool and I’d like to talk more about them in a future post.)
Recorder: Sony Hi-MD minidisc recorder, model MZ-RH910, with the external AA battery pack
Cable: 3-pin XLR-to-stereo mini cable to connect the mic to the recorder
Headphones: regular walkman-style
And here is said gear posing for a photo, with the dress-sock windscreen pulled partly off so you can see the microphone and the skeleton of the shockmount:
I originally wanted to get a recording setup to record rarities or interesting breeders (e.g. out of range Chihuahuan Ravens, empids, etc.), but I more often find myself doing other things instead. So far, I use it mostly for personal enjoyment of some of the more common local species and the occasional vocal migrants. It’s a great way to get out and spend time just observing a few individuals for a relatively long period of time. Nest vocalizations, territorial disputes, all these things are amplified enough to reveal a lot of cool behavior you just can’t experience under most circumstances.
I do occasionally chase “target species” I’d like to record (e.g. winter finches are always a treat here in western New York), as well as night-flight calls during migration (although a nice Bill-Evans-style parabolic mic would work way better than a shotgun mic). I’ve used my recording setup to “turn up the volume” for a friend of mine who is somewhat hearing impaired over some frequency ranges, and I even brought it along on a two week field course I helped teach a couple of winters ago down in the Carribean. While recording conditions were horrible during the course, I did get a few “ok” recordings of species that were the subject of student field projects, which they were then able to use in their presentations at the end of the course.
Listen to the sounds of a Vervain Hummingbird (Mellisuga minima) that Paul recorded in Punta Caña, Dominican Republic, in January 2008. The recording is faithful to both the bird and its slightly noisy surroundings:
And here’s another nice recording of Paul’s, of a Hammond’s Flycatcher (Empidonax hammondii) in Pueblo Mountain Park, Pueblo County, Colorado, on 31 May 2006:
You can contact Paul through his website if you have any questions for him about recording!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.