I can remember the first time I realized just how powerful birding by ear was. It was October of 2003, and I had already been a birder for years. I was birding with my mother at Topanga State Park in Los Angeles County, and we passed by a row of trees full of noisy, chipping birds. I recall describing the call to myself as “vit”. I spent a minute trying to get a look at one of these birds, and it turned out to be an Audubon’s Warbler, a common bird with which I was intimately familiar, but I had apparently never learned its distinctive call. Now that I knew the call, I didn’t have to try to get a visual on each of those chipping warblers. Instead I could move on to try to find different species. It was an epiphany that was a long time coming for me: if I knew the common bird calls, I could be much more efficient in the field, and spend more of my time looking for uncommon birds! Just a few years later I started my first field job surveying for breeding birds, and I learned how to hike through a forest and get to know all the birds around without ever needing to see one.
Birding by ear became a rewarding challenge. Although I was aware that people with huge fancy microphones could go out and actually record the birds, I didn’t realize how easy it was until I met Frank Gallo of Connecticut Audubon, who played me a recording of a singing Wood-wren he had captured with an inexpensive handheld recorder.
My first experience recording bird sounds came about in a moment of need. There was a calling Winter Wren at the Hassayampa River Preserve. It was a review species and I wanted to get some physical documentation of the bird. I had my point-and-shoot camera, but it wouldn’t come into the open for any kind of photograph. It occurred to me that I might be able to record its voice by taking a video with the camera, so I tried it out.
It’s not a great recording, but it’s not half bad considering the equipment. Using a tool already in my arsenal, I was able to get a recording of the bird and submit the documentation to the Arizona Bird Committee. (Nathan Pieplow over at earbirding.com has a great post about using cameras to record birds here.)
A little over a year ago, I got an iPhone. When the Nutting’s Flycatcher showed up at the Bill Williams, I used the voice memo feature on my phone to get diagnostic sound recordings of the bird, which you can listen to here. A few months later, my buddy Tim Schreckengost alerted me to this post describing the cheap ($25) Edutige i-Microphone for recording birds on the iPhone. I immediately ordered it, and my obsession with recording birds took off. All during the spring and summer I carried the tiny mic in my pocket, ready to connect it to the phone whenever I heard an interesting bird vocalization. Some of my favorite recordings using the iPhone and i-Microphone are these Common Poorwills and this Gray Vireo.
In October of last year, I bumped it up several notches and bought a Sony PCM-M10 digital recorder (just under $250) with a matching Micover windscreen (~$25) for the built-in mics. I adore this recorder. It is about the size of a wallet and fits easily into my pocket, so I can always carry it when I’m birding and have it readily available when an opportunity presents itself. The interface isn’t always intuitive, but it has loads of useful features, as far as I can tell it only pretends to use battery power (I haven’t had to change them once), and it records quality audio. Examples: listen to the improvement on another Winter Wren, and one of my favorites, an Anna’s Hummingbird.
As I posted last month, I recently bought a Sennheiser ME66 shotgun microphone to use with my Sony recorder. I chose a shotgun mic over a parabola for several reasons, including price and portability. The recordings I get aren’t as good as a parabola would yield, but I’ve been happy with the results so far. I have many more favorite recordings since I started using the shotgun mic, but check out these Gila Woodpeckers and Song Sparrows.
Pictured above are my recording arsenal, including the recorder, mic, and accessories. When I don’t expect to be recording, I can still carry just the recorder, windscreen, and headphones in my pocket. The headphones help me adjust the recording level appropriately, so that I’m getting a clear signal of the target bird but I don’t get too much background noise. Sometimes I forget to bring them into the field, and I feel like I’m recording blindly! I use earbuds because I can slip them on and off without making noise or interfering with other gear. As for the shotgun mic windscreen, it’s a foam piece that came with the mic. I plan to upgrade, as it only cuts wind noise in very light wind conditions. The Micover windscreen works much better. I use the Rode pistol grip shock mount to reduce mic handling noise without having to bother with a tripod. It’s nice and portable, and I can easily move the mic so that it’s always pointed directly at the target sound. For the cable, I found it very confusing to find the right one. The key is to buy a transformer cable that converts audio from a sono mic to a stereo recorder. This one, a Pearstone LMT100, works well enough, but I wish I had gotten one longer than 1.5 feet–I often end up having to hold the recorder and the mic in the same hand. (For a lot more information on the mic, cable, and recorder interface, check out this forum discussion). Finally, the dry bag. When I’m not using my equipment, I break it down and leave it in the dry bag. It’s protected against dirt and water, it’s all kept neatly together, and it fits in a shoulder bag or backpack. It takes me about 30 seconds to set up the mic and connect it to the recorder.
I should also mention my essential gear at home: sound editing software. I know some people swear by Adobe Audition, but I’m perfectly happy with (free) Audacity. I jumped on a sale last fall to purchase Cornell’s Raven Pro software, which is great for analyzing sounds, creating spectrograms, and viewing several clips at once.
Lately I’ve found that it’s hard to be in the field without wanting to record every interesting vocalization! On the positive side, it has gotten me to pay more attention to vocalizations and their functions. For example, see my post on loon vocalizations. Another example was an observation on a recent hike in a desert wash. While watching a pair of Verdins building a nest, I noticed that both birds were singing. I had thought Verdin song was given only by males; the Birds of North America account doesn’t mention differences between sexes or lack thereof.
To read more about my experiences with vocalizations and sound recording, try exploring the sound recordings category on this site. You can also hear most of my better (or just unusual) recordings on xeno-canto here. It’s interesting (for me anyway) to sort recordings by date and track the improvement with each new recording toy. Recordings before 10/6/12 were made with the iPhone and i-Microphone; after that the Sony PCM M-10. My first recordings with the shotgun mic were of Black-tailed Gnatcatchers on 1/13/13.
I hope my story will inspire others to try out sound recording–it’s easy, cheap, and fun to get started! Hopefully the information above will also be helpful for newbies like me.