The Listening to Birds Blog

Song Thrush by Nigel Pye //myweb.tiscali.co.uk/njpphotography/

February 1, 2008

Why bird sounds?

Filed under: Methods — Tags: , , — Andrew Whitehouse @ 12:19 pm

A couple of days ago I read this interesting report about how scientists have discovered that certain sounds made by Anna’s hummingbirds are produced mechanically by the tail feathers rather than being vocalisations. This reminded me to explain why the Listening to Birds project is about bird sounds in the broadest possible sense. Perhaps when I mention ‘listening to birds’ people at first think of bird song or more broadly bird vocalisations. But birds make lots of beautiful, startling and evocative sounds that aren’t produced through the syrinx, the specialised organ they use to produce songs and calls. Perhaps the most obvious example of these ‘other sounds’ is the drumming of a woodpecker. But there are others. As birds move through the air the wings rush and whir. And birds make all kinds of other sounds as they interact with their physical surroundings, sounds like the gushing of a duck or swan as it lands on the water.

I made the following recording last weekend at Caerlaverock Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve in the south of Scotland. The recording was made just after 7am, a short time before sunrise. I was hearing lots of vocalisations from ducks, geese and waders but some of my favourite sounds were the whirring of wings or the splashing of ducks landing in the water. I love the feeling of the movement of birds that these sounds evoke.

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So this is a project that is concerned with every kind of sound that a bird makes and I’d be interested in hearing about your experiences of these ‘other birds sounds’ through the contribute section of the website.

December 9, 2007

Atlas work and listening

Filed under: Methods — Andrew Whitehouse @ 8:59 pm

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) recently launched a new Bird Atlas project for the UK and Ireland. The new atlas will map different bird species and will rely largely on volunteers to carry out survey work. One of the main ways in which the surveying for the atlas is done is through Timed Tetrad Visits (TTVs). Each volunteer is assigned various ‘tetrads’, which are 2×2 km squares. They then make four timed one or two hour visits to the tetrad in winter and summer and count the birds they see and hear.

Last weekend I did my first TTVs in two tetrads along the lower reaches of the River Don in Aberdeen. Doing the survey involves using ears as much as eyes, and I became very conscious that my hearing skills were being tested to a much great degree than during ‘normal’ birding. Most times when I go birding, I’m looking and listening for birds that are out of the ordinary in some way or another. An effect of this is that I tend to filter out the commoner birds, wonderful though they are. It’s not so much that I don’t hear these commoner birds, it’s that I sometimes don’t register hearing them; I don’t consciously tell myself what I can hear. This is a kind of ‘unconscious identification’ that is probably important in all sorts of areas of perception. We perhaps only realise we’re doing it when we suddenly find what we were unconsciously listening out for – by hearing something different, we realise we were listening all the time.

But surveying for the atlas requires that every bird, heard or seen, is registered not just consciously but in pen and ink on the pages of a notepad. Last weekend I found it surprisingly hard work to spend four hours registering and attempting to identify every bird I found. There aren’t too many birds singing at the moment here in Aberdeen, aside from lots of Robins and a few Wrens, but there were lots of subtle calls that tested my skill at identifying common vocalisations to the full. I realised how hard it can be to distinguish between the calls of various tits, most of which give some rather similar high pitched twittering calls, as well as a few more distinctive sounds. Knowing whether a call was a great tit or blue tit could sometimes be a challenge. Likewise song thrush and robin both give some rather soft contact calls that can sound rather similar. Could I tell the difference? Sometimes the answer was no.

So if you’re doing atlas work in the UK and Ireland at the moment, or if you’re doing some other kind of bird surveying, I’d be interested in hearing about the role that listening plays in the survey work and about how you think surveying influences your listening skills.

November 28, 2007

Why I’m recording birds

Filed under: Methods — Andrew Whitehouse @ 7:57 pm

One of the activities that I’ll be engaged in throughout the Listening to Birds project is making recordings of birds. I have no previous expertise in this area but it’s something I’ve wanted to learn to do for a long time, simply for my own interest. But making recordings is, I think, going to be significant for research in a number of ways.

  1. It’s useful to have recordings of birds for illustrative purposes, not least on this blog.
  2. Recordings are integral to many of the activities that use bird sounds I’m interested in investigating. They’re essential to scientific studies of bird sounds; birders use recordings to help them to identify and see birds; musicians and artists use recordings in all kinds of ways in their work. By understanding the ways in which recordings are made with these different ends in mind I hope to gain insights into how people use bird sounds and how technology influences how they hear them.
  3. I’m interested in the skill of recording, and it’s this that I’d like to say more about here. I want to learn how to use the technology and the skills needed to get different kinds of recordings. I’m also interested in understanding how that process of learning influences how I hear birds.

So where am I at with recording at the moment? Well, I’ve acquired some equipment. My first recorder, and the one with which I’m most familiar, is a Remembird. This is quite a new product but potentially represents a revolution in bird sound recording. The recorder is very small and fits on most pairs of binoculars. It has a voice recorder for notes but also has a microphone for recording bird sounds. The results can be quite impressive, particularly given that they are achieved at the touch of a button. I’m interested to see how popular these recorders become with birders, and the effects that might have on how people go about birding. There certainly hasn’t been anything else as portable as Remembird that makes recordings as easily and of such high quality. Here’s a recording I made of a yellow-browed warbler in Shetland this autumn, always an exciting bird to hear in the autumn:

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More recently, I’ve become the proud owner of a Fostex FR2 LE digital recorder. This is a fairly small device that records sounds onto a compact flash card. To go with this, I’ve got a Sennheiser ME66 microphone. I’ve used this set up a couple of times so far, so I’m only just beginning to figure out how to use it.

All of this technology, even the very simple Remembird, requires some skill to use. More than that, I needed certain other skills in order to acquire the right equipment in the first place. What did I have to know about or be able to do in order to know that these were good devices to use? In my case, this was mostly done by scouring the Internet, particularly online forums such as BirdForum, where advice about what equipment to buy can be found or enquiries made. With some idea of what I wanted to do, I could find out about products that fitted with my aims. This skill of knowing where to find information seems rather humble and is presumably shared with anybody reading this page, but it was a necessary prerequisite for acquiring and using technology.

On using the digital recorder, I’m struck by how straightforward it seems to anyone already familiar with a digital camera. The screen layout and selection of menus and settings operates in much the same way, only with the settings being for sound rather than light. In this case, possessing skills developed through using one technology can be readily translated to another. In making recordings, I’ve begun to notice sounds or aspects of sounds that I hadn’t noticed before. Background noise is foregrounded, and distances become critical. The wind becomes a factor in much the same way that light is an essential consideration to photographers and even with the protection of a windshield, I’ve been struck by how easily the microphone picks up the coarse ruffling of a strong breeze. By experimenting with settings, particularly for microphone gain, I’m starting to appreciate the effects that these can have on what the recorder ‘hears’. I begin to attune my own hearing to what I understand of the sensory organ that is the microphone and recorder.

Something that I’m already very aware of is how much simpler my task of recording birds is than it might have been even a handful of years ago. Now there are small digital recorders that can be taken almost anywhere, or even fitted onto binoculars in the case of Remembird. Information about bird sound recording and the equipment to use is readily available via the Internet. In the past, recording was a more complex and cumbersome affair involving reel-to-reel tape recorders and even, if one travels far enough back in time, wax cylinders. Complementing the digital recorders are an array of computer programmes for editing and analysing sound. Many of these are freely available for download, such as Audacity, Syrinx and Raven. So the possibilities for easily recording and analysing bird sounds are very much greater for the amateur than they were even at the turn of the century and it’s these possibilities and the skills that emerge with them that I intend to explore through making recordings.

The University of Aberdeen