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The Warbler Guide

The Warbler Guide

(Updated 7/10/2013 to include discussion of the audio files now available for download)

Princeton University Press recently sent me a review copy of Tom Stephenson’s and Scott Whittle’s The Warbler Guide, published this month.  This is one of the most remarkable books about bird identification that I’ve seen in recent years.

The quick summary:

  • It’s huge. Only one inch shorter and 3 ounces lighter than the “big” Sibley Guide.  You won’t be slipping it into your jacket pocket.
  • It has TONS of photographs — 38 photographs of Blackburnian Warbler in that species’ account, not counting the blown-up vignettes and comparison photos of similar species, or the photos in the wonderful flight comparison plates at the back of the book.
  • It’s got spectrograms — illustrating an average of 4 song types per species, plus the “chip” and the “flight call.”  At last, a field guide that gives bird sounds the attention they deserve!
  • It’s groundbreaking.  There’s more information here on warbler identification than you can learn in a year (if you don’t already know it) — and the authors have come up with multiple original ways to present it, many of them quite brilliant.


I got the fine opportunity to review this book in part because it puts so much emphasis on identification by sound, including by spectrogram — which is what this blog is all about.  As you know, I’m currently at work on my own field guide to bird sounds. In some ways, The Warbler Guide treads some of the same ground, but it does so in its own way, and I have no connection to the authors or the publisher.


The visuals in this book are tremendous.  The quantity and quality of the photographs outstrips anything I’ve seen in a field guide.

Maybe the best part is the comparison pages, most of which are called “finder guides”.  You want all the warbler heads on one plate?  All the undertails?  All the side views?  All the song spectrograms?  All the flight shots?  This book’s got comparison plates for all of these and more.  These pages alone are worth the cover price.


The book’s layout can be confusing, contributing to an overall sense of “information overload.”  For example, the Blackburnian Warbler species account proceeds as follows:

  • Pages 1-2: photos of bright Blackburnians;
  • Page 3: more photos of bright Blackburnians, plus photos of some comparison species (in this case, Yellow-throated and American Redstart);
  • Page 4: how to age and sex Blackburnians, plus range maps;
  • Pages 5-6: spectrograms: Blackburnian on the left, confusion species on the right;
  • Pages 7-8: photos of drab Blackburnians;
  • Page 9: more photos of drab Blackburnians, plus comparison species;
  • Page 10: a full-page photo of a Blackburnian, just to keep the number of pages even.

The design makes it hard to tell when you’re “home” in a species account — that is, when you’re at the beginning.  And the ubiquity of comparison species, both in photos and spectrograms, blurs the borders between accounts even further.  If you, like me, are in the habit of scanning photos rather than words when looking for a particular species, then abandon all hope of navigating this book with ease.  (If you’re in the habit of scanning words, you’re still in some trouble, because all the photos are helpfully labeled.)  The only thing that saves this book from complete organizational disaster is the decision to order the species accounts alphabetically rather than taxonomically.  Normally I’m not in favor of this, but here, it’s a life-saver.


The big news is that this book has spectrograms!  That fact alone makes me want to shout with joy from the rooftops.  At last we can see the sounds we’re describing.  This is the first major attempt to use spectrograms for identification since at least the 1980s, and it is long overdue.

It’s also a watershed moment for birding by ear.  A lot of people will use this book to decide whether spectrograms are worth using.  I fervently hope they will think so.  But based on the way the sounds are taught and presented, I fear that some readers, especially casual birders, may persist in the prevailing misconception that spectrograms are difficult, and “for experts only.”  If this happens, it will be the fault of the authors’ vocabulary.  A choice as simple as using the term “element” instead of “note” sends the message that song identification is a technical endeavour, not an intuitive one.

Their narrow focus on warblers both hurts them and helps them.  It allows them to simplify the discussion to three tone qualities — “clear, complex, and buzzy” — which is a simple and helpful distinction.  But the focus on warblers also tempts them to divide all songs into “phrases” and “sections.”  This terminology is great for explaining the difference between, say, Nashville and Tennessee Warbler songs, but it becomes very awkward when applied to, say, Canada Warbler, forcing the authors to write “many Phrases, almost all 1 Element” instead of the much simpler “almost never repeats a note.”  And their descriptions of “Expanded” and “Compressed” elements are so opaque that I fear they may do more harm than good.  I fear the same for the section on distinguishing between flight calls.

Again, though, they get the visuals right.  The spectrograms are high-quality, and underneath each one is a series of symbols intended to give a sense of how the song actually sounds.  When it comes to the pitch and rhythm of the sounds, these symbols are pretty intuitive, and they had me hearing the sounds in my head almost immediately.  I don’t know if they’ll work for everybody, but they might provide a “stepping stone” to help beginners translate between picture and sound.


The book is accompanied by a downloadable playlist of audio files.  In a couple of years, we’re going to forget that serious books on bird ID were ever published without accompanying audio files.  And we’ll get used to paying more: it costs an additional $5.99 to download the audio collection.  You can purchase it separately from the book if you like.

The audio collection mirrors the book exactly.  The sound file named 180 a Blackpoll  Chip Call.mp3 accompanies spectrogram a on page 180, making it easy to go back and forth between audio and book.  If a particular sound appears more than once in the book (due to being included on multiple comparison pages), then it appears more than once in the audio collection as well. Unfortunately, the naming convention for comparison songs is confusing: 165 d Black-and-white  Blackburnian.mp3 is the Blackburnian song shown on the comparison page for Black-and-white Warbler.  There’s no Black-and-white Warbler in the audio clip.

The audio files are generally high in quality.  They are very short — a single song or a single call — and have been assiduously cleaned of background noise.  One really cool thing is that the audio files use spectrograms as the “album art,” so on most devices, the appropriate spectrogram pops right up when you play the song.  This little feature, more than any other aspect of the entire project, has the potential to get people visualizing sounds and change the way they listen.

One downside to the audio aesthetic is that it forces a narrow focus on single songs. There’s little mention of patterns of delivery — whether consecutive songs are similar or different — which can be useful for ID at times.  More distressingly, the single-serving recordings of chips and flight calls provide zero information about the range of variation in each species’ calls, and the careful scrubbing of background noise makes some of them sound unnatural.  Compared to Evans and O’Brien’s CD-ROM of flight calls, The Warbler Guide’s recordings are far easier to listen to and compare.  But Evans and O’Brien’s longer and more natural-sounding clips, even though they often roar with noise, provide lots more information to the ear.


This book is pretty much all identification, all the time.  There’s very little about biology and behavior — only what the authors deem useful in identification.  Many warblers employ a two-category song system, in which different categories of songs are deployed in different patterns for different purposes.   The research into these song systems is extensive, complex, and mostly absent from this book.  Many will applaud the narrow focus on identification, but I, for one, am sorry that the book teaches me little more about these fascinating birds than simply how to tell them apart.

The bottom line

All in all, this book is a must-have for serious birders.  Beginning and intermediate birders should also check it out, and not be too discouraged by the sheer volume of information.  I am confident that this book will enhance the way people look at warblers.  I am less confident, but ardently hopeful, that it will enhance the way they listen to warblers as well.

Larkwire: A Review

Larkwire: A Review

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
Song Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Lark Sparrow
Bewick’s Wren
White-crowned Sparrow
Lincoln’s Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Green-tailed Towhee
Savannah Sparrow
Baird’s Sparrow
Black-throated Sparrow
Cassin’s Sparrow
Bewick’s Wren
Red Crossbill
American Dipper
Lark Bunting

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.

Note: I have no commercial interest in Larkwire.

The Coolest Bird

The Coolest Bird

The Coolest Bird, by Rich Levad. Click for link

I’ve posted a couple of times before [1 2] about the Black Swift, one of the most unique and mysterious birds in North America, but this news was too good not to report: Rich Levad’s book “The Coolest Bird” has been published online by the American Birding Association.  Click the link for the 152-page PDF.

I had the privilege of knowing Rich before his untimely death in February 2008 from ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).  He was such a force of nature that even though his career as an amateur ornithologist didn’t begin until after he retired from teaching, he still managed to move our knowledge of the Black Swift forward as much as any other individual in the past three decades.  “The Coolest Bird” is part memoir, part historical narrative, part monograph.  Rich meant it to be a book for the masses — the story not only of the bird but of all those who have pursued it, including their rivalries and prejudices, their flashes of insight, their daring climbs to nest locations, and above all their passion for the bird.  It’s a fast and absorbing read — if you have any time to spare, I highly recommend it.

Spectrograms on the iPhone

Spectrograms on the iPhone

Screenshot of the Spectrogram application for iPhone, showing how it renders Killdeer vocalizations. Click for link.

An email from Denise Wight alerted me to the Spectrogram application for the iPhone, which is a pretty neat little app indeed.  It uses the iPhone’s built-in microphone to create realtime scrolling spectrograms of any sound you’re hearing.  This means you can see spectrograms in the field, at the very same time that you’re listening to the bird sound.

Why is this exciting?  Because now those with hearing loss can see the sounds that their ears can’t hear!

Here’s an example.  Ted Floyd, editor of Birding magazine and author of the Smithsonian Guide to Birds, is Colorado’s recognized guru of nocturnal migration study.  Ted and I have gone out together many times to listen to nocturnal migrants giving their quiet “seep” and “tsit” notes high overhead in the dark, and every experience has been frustrating for me, because Ted invariably hears ten times more flight calls than I do, and that’s no exaggeration. My ears simply aren’t good enough to register such high-pitched sounds at such low volume.  I can only hear the lowest, loudest migrants, and for a while I suspected Ted might be making up the rest.

No such luck.  I realized the phantom flight calls were real when I carted my laptop into the field, plugged my shotgun microphone into it, and started recording with Raven.  Voila: a realtime scrolling spectrogram showed me the sounds of the night sky, even the ones I couldn’t hear.  The scrolling spectrogram gave me a chance to identify sounds visually that I couldn’t even detect by ear.

Now anyone with an iPhone can have the same experience, for the low price of $4.99, without having to lug a laptop and a microphone into the field.

The Spectrogram application has its pros and cons.  The gain is adjustable, which is nice.  You can adjust the frequency scale to run from zero to 8 kHz, 22 kHz, or 44 kHz — the 8 kHz setting should work best for most bird sounds — but you can’t zoom in or out on the time scale, which means those flight calls aren’t likely to be visually identifiable.  This may be better in future versions.

One thing that drives me absolutely nuts is the color scheme.  You can’t change it to grayscale — you’re stuck in the odd red-and-blue mode.  Personally, I can’t stand spectrograms in colors.  They may be nice for other purposes, but when it comes to identifying bird sounds, the colors get in the way.  Birders don’t need much information about loudness; for us, a spectrogram is text, and it’s meant to be read.  Therefore it needs to be in black and white, for the same reason that books need to be printed in black and white — anything else hurts the eyes after a while.

I could say more, but I’ll dismount my soapbox. Before signing off I should note that Pete Schwamb, the creator of Spectrogram for the iPhone, has also created a couple of other cool audio-related iPhone apps — including CricketSong, which uses the chirping of Snowy Tree Crickets to determine the air temperature.  Check it out.

Review: Songs of the Warblers

Review: Songs of the Warblers

In 1985, the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology partnered with the Borror Lab of Bioacoustics and Ontario Nature to produce Songs of the Warblers of North America on LP by Donald J. Borror and William W. H. Gunn.  No other source of that time period could claim to be as comprehensive: it contained no fewer than 280 cuts of song from 57 species of warblers, including mega-rarities from Mexico like Fan-tailed and Golden-crowned Warblers — even the extinct Bachman’s Warbler!  In addition, it included recordings of calls for all but eleven of those species.  For decades, this collection was the last word in warbler sounds.

Now, 25 years later, Cornell has re-released this classic, this time in MP3 format for digital download.  The song recordings are just as high-quality as ever, and I’m thrilled by the idea that their digitization might make them accessible to a whole new generation of bird enthusiasts.  But great though it was in 1985, the collection desperately needs to be expanded and revised — so desperately that I’m not sure I can recommend forking over the fifteen bucks for the download.

Here’s what I like about the collection:

  • The songs sound great. The cuts are nicely edited and, at about 25 seconds apiece, just long enough to stay interesting.
  • They capture the range of variation well in most species.  After listening to the five Borror and Gunn cuts of Olive Warbler song, you’ll be totally confused what an Olive Warbler sounds like — but anyone who listens to Olive Warblers for more than an hour in the field will be equally confused, so I call that a job well done.
  • The coverage of rare species is good.  In particular, those recordings of Bachman’s Warbler are true gems.

Here, unfortunately, is what Cornell should do if it really wants to update this guide:

  • Fill in the gaping holes.  Eleven species lack any recordings of calls whatsoever.  If they were all Mexican vagrants, I might understand, but Wilson’s Warbler?  Black-throated Blue?  You’ve got to be kidding me.
  • Bring the booklet up to snuff.  The accompanying brochure currently includes only the barest minimum of information.  It says nothing of the behavioral context of the vocalizations.  The “Type A” and “Type B” songs of many species are here, but they aren’t labeled as such, nor are subspecies labeled — so I can’t tell whether both “Western” and “Yellow” Palm Warblers are represented, for example.
  • Add flight calls. Andrew Farnsworth and colleages at Cornell have amassed a downright impressive collection of warbler flight calls, including many that don’t appear on Evans and O’Brien’s classic DVD.  Why not stick them on here?
  • Add flight songs.  Even the well-known flight songs of Ovenbird and Common Yellowthroat are missing.
  • Improve geographic coverage and representations of possible splits.  It’s nice that Myrtle and Audubon’s Warblers are treated separately, but where’s “Calaveras” Nashville Warbler?  How about Mangrove Warbler, or at least “Golden” Yellow Warbler?
  • Include common hybrids.  At a minimum, give us a Blue-winged × Golden-winged gallery with a dash of Hermit × Townsend’s.
  • Add Crescent-chested Warbler. The rarity coverage isn’t bad, but by now this species has certainly occurred north of Mexico often enough to merit inclusion.

Nostalgia is great and all, and Borror and Gunn accomplished something truly monumental in their day, but bird sound collections are supposed to be tools, not collector’s items.  And as a field tool, this reissue doesn’t quite meet the modern standard.

Let’s face it: the era of the commercial bird sound collection is pretty much over.  You can pay $15 for Borror & Gunn and listen to four examples of the song of Black-throated Gray Warbler and one example of its calls — or you can head over to Xeno-Canto and download (as of this writing) five examples of song and three examples of calls, completely free of charge.  For better or worse, the internet has democratized bird sound publishing, and anybody who still wants to make money off of sound identification guides has got to add some serious value.

When it published Voices of North American Owls in 2005, Cornell added that value.  The booklet accompanying the two CDs ran to 56 pages and described the behavioral context of each vocalization in detail.  The collection as a whole aimed to catalogue the entire repertoire of each species, and did a pretty darn good job of it.  By and large, the recordings of the common vocalizations were of a higher quality than anything you could download off the internet for free, and the recordings of the rare vocalizations simply weren’t available anywhere else.  Add to that the convenience of having all those sounds in one pre-assembled package, and you’ve got an audio publication well worth the $30 price tag.

With the reissue of Borror and Gunn, the convenience of pre-assembly accounts for almost all the added value.  The quality of the song recordings and the historical significance of the work make up the rest of it.  Whether that totals $15 is a judgment I’ll leave to you.

Here’s my personal judgment.  If I were the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, after performing the genuinely valuable service of digitizing this historic collection, I’d generate some goodwill by donating the whole thing to Xeno-Canto, as Bernabe Lopez-Lanus recently did with his colossal DVD Bird Sounds from Southern South America (6100 recordings from over 1000 species).  Barring that, I’d  invest the time and money it would take to really revise and update the project.  Anything less fails to do justice to the original work of Borror and Gunn.

Book Review: A Sound Like Water Dripping

Book Review: A Sound Like Water Dripping

by Soren Bondrup-Nielsen, Gaspereau Press, 2009.  Cover image from Cape Breton Regional Library (click for link).
by Soren Bondrup-Nielsen, Gaspereau Press, 2009. Cover image from Cape Breton Regional Library (click for link).

A Sound Like Water Dripping: In Search of the Boreal Owl is the 2009 memoir of Canadian researcher Soren Bondrup-Neilsen’s research for his master’s thesis on one of the most elusive of North American birds.  Born in Denmark, Bondrup-Nielsen spent the first few years of the 1970’s traipsing around the boreal forest of northern Ontario and northern Alberta, making some of the first audio recordings and nest observations of the Boreal Owl in the New World.  Naturally, this involved lots of snowshoeing, skiing, camping, and hiking in remote forests in the dead of night at temperatures far below freezing, in areas frequented by wild animals and some equally wild humans, so as you might expect, there’s lots of material for a memoir.

I came  upon this book while I was doing research for a blog post on the vocalizations of Boreal Owls.  Bondrup-Nielsen was the first researcher to publish on the vocalizations of the species in North America, and we still owe a great deal of what we know about the species to his groundbreaking findings.  As I expected, this book didn’t add any nitty-gritty details of Boreal Owl ecology to Bondrup-Nielsen’s published scholarly works, but it certainly adds a great deal of adventure, humor, local color, and historical context.

My favorite parts of the book were Bondrup-Nielsen’s adventures alone in the backcountry, searching for and finding the elusive owls.  Besides the frigid temperatures, he suffered many other unexpected setbacks, from running into a moose (literally) to, unfortunately, losing two of the owls he had fitted with radio transmitters, possibly because of the transmitters themselves.  In one case, feeling guilty that he had likely caused the death of a male owl who had fledglings to feed, he collected the three owlets from the nest after the widowed female abandoned them and found a bird rehabilitator to raise them.  Stories like these underlie a great deal of biological field research, but are rarely told in the scientific literature.

Between bird backstories, Bondrup-Nielsen takes us into the culture of the logging camps where he lodged and sometimes worked, in the company of a colorful cast of characters with whom he got along sometimes better, sometimes worse.  If I were to ask for one improvement in the book, it would be an expansion of the human character sketches, which capture my imagination but frequently leave me wanting more.

The book won a prize for its layout and design, which are simple but attractive; the black-and-white photographs scattered throughout the book help bring the story to life.  Overall, the book is a quick read and a good one, especially if you yourself happen to be enthralled with the idea of wandering around in a dark boreal forest, waiting for that ethereal sound that the natives of northeast Canada likened to the sound of dripping water — the sound that (trust me) can instantly transform a tired, cold, exhausting, discouraging experience into a sublime, transcendent, unforgettable one:

Happy owling!

SongFinder Review

SongFinder Review

I know I said I’d be gone for a couple more weeks, but that was before I got this great guest post by Mel Goff reviewing the SongFinder by Nature Sound Electronics, a device intended to help birders with high-frequency hearing loss.  As I suffer a little bit from that malady already (and will likely suffer much more in years to come), this is a topic of great interest to me, and I hope others will benefit from Mel’s review.

One thing Mel wanted me to mention was that he has no vested interest in the product or the company; he just thinks this information needs to get out.  With that, I’ll turn it over to him (and sign off again until March, as planned):

SongFinder Review

by Mel Goff


I am 64 years old and have high frequency hearing loss. I spent 21 years in the US Army and the noise levels from computers, heavy equipment and weapons did me no favors. I have been birding with my wife, Jeanne, since a trip we took to the Everglades National Park in 2002. We make quite a team as she can hear the birds and I can do a pretty good job of spotting them. I tried all the latest and greatest hearing aids, and while they amplified the sounds that were within my frequency range, they did nothing to let me hear the sounds from the higher frequencies where the majority of birdies tweet.  I could never justify the cost of those hearing aids when they did not do the one thing I wanted from them.

Then I saw an ad in the ABA’s “Birding” magazine for a product called SongFinder. It alluded to its ability to digitally convert high frequency sounds to lower frequencies thus enabling people like me to once again hear the birds.

Let’s Check It Out

With some optimism and much skepticism, Jeanne and I went into the home office and opened the Nature Sound Electronics webpage at I went from page to page reading about the frequency shifting technology, the testimonials, and the ordering information, until I finally came to the “Sound Samples” link. On this page there are pictures of 16 birds that I had long ago decided were mute. After all, I could hear a crow, so why couldn’t I hear a Yellow Warbler? I clicked first on that YW and a voice said “Yellow Warbler” followed by silence. Jeanne said, “Yep, that’s the Yellow Warbler.” Then the voice said “Divide by two”. Oh, my gosh, I heard it! It’s a trick! It cannot be!

We listened to all 16 with the song divided by 2, 3, and 4. Jeanne assured me that the “divide by 2” option was by far the closest to the real song. The others had the same pattern and cadence, but the lower pitch came off as less than satisfactory.

Let’s Give It a Tryout

The SongFinder.  Photo by Mel Goff.
The SongFinder. Photo by Mel Goff.

Seeing that there was a 14-day refund policy, I decided to give the SongFinder a tryout. The only problem was that this was Monday, and we were leaving for Hawaii on Saturday. I called the company and I agreed to pay for FedEx second-day delivery. I got the unit on Friday afternoon, just 12 hours before we had to head for the airport.

On the plane I read the manual, then re-read the manual, then read it one more time. When we arrived in Lihue, Kauai, we had to get a rental car, buy groceries, drive to the resort, check-in, unpack – well, you get the picture. By now it was dark and the birds had retired for the evening.

The Big Day

Sunday morning, just after sunrise. We are dressed, we have our binocs and guides, and we head out to test the SongFinder for the first time.

White-rumped Shama, University of Hawai'i at Manoa. Photo by K.W. Bridges.
White-rumped Shama, University of Hawai'i at Manoa. Photo by K.W. Bridges.

At this point I want to tell you that the online demo did nothing to prepare me for the symphony of sound I would hear when we stepped into the resort parking lot. Cardinals (Northern and Red-crested), Japanese White-eyes, White-rumped Shamas, House Sparrows, House Finches, and Common Mynas all performed just for me. I could not believe what I was hearing! In fact, I decided to turn off the switch to see what would happen. When I did, all I could hear were the Zebra Doves, Spotted Doves, and Junglefowl that I had heard on our last visit to Kauai.

I am not ashamed to say that when I turned the power back on, I shed a tear or two as the concerto of songbirds once again came through the headphones. I was now finally a BIRDER, not just a Bird Watcher. For the next 16 days on Kauai, Maui, and Oahu, I heard the calls and songs of 76 species – seven of them lifers for Jeanne and me. The endemics: I’iwi, Apapane, Amakihi, and Maui Creeper at Hosmer Grove. The Japanese Bush-warbler on Lower Koke’e Road. The Bulbuls and Shamas at Lyon Arboretum. I cannot begin to describe the feelings I had.

The Good

The unit is easy to set up and use. It is lightweight, and clips to my belt. The size of the unit (4″ by 8″) did not bother me in the least. Adjustments for volume and frequency were easy to make. I used just the first 4 AA batteries I installed for the full 16 days and did not have to replace them even though I did have backups with me.

The SongFinder does not change any of the sounds I can already hear. I still hear the doves and crows and jays and flickers just as I did before. Their songs and calls do not come through the headset and are not altered. That is an important fact, because directionality will be mentioned in the next section and SongFinder does not affect that for the birds I just mentioned.

Herb at Nature Sound Electronics worked with me to get the unit delivered before I left, and even told me that if I had a problem with the unit, he would not be too strict on the 14 day policy since I told him our plans in advance.

The Bad

In actuality, there is no “Bad”, but there are a couple of things I should mention. Directionality is not a strength of SongFinder. It lets me hear the birds, but it is not Full Surround Sound Stereo that would let me pinpoint birds. Jeanne still helps me with that. Also, birds that are far away still sound far away. The unit is a frequency converter, not an amplifier.

I wear a large hat, size 7 & 7/8. The SongFinder headset is not adjustable like music headsets, so the one-size-fits-all idea is actually one-size-fits-most. It takes getting used to, but is something I gladly will adjust to. I plan to try to find a way to adjust the headset or see if the company has a larger model.

The cost may put off some folks. At $750 plus $15 shipping, you may think it is too expensive. But let me tell you that it is a small price to pay for the benefits you will receive. Digital hearing aids that will do nothing to let you hear the birds can cost five times as much.


SongFinder has changed my birding life. I can’t wait to get out in the mornings to hear the sounds of the winter birds. The chickadees, juncos, sparrows, finches, and Downies are beautiful to see, but even more beautiful when you can also hear them. I cannot speak to long-term reliability, but first results have been overwhelmingly positive. I wholeheartedly recommend SongFinder to any birder with high frequency hearing loss.

Please let me know if this review has helped you.

Good birding, everyone! I’ll be the one out there with the funny headset on listening to the birds again – for the first time.

Mel Goff