The Listening to Birds Blog

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

May 7, 2008

Screaming summer

Filed under: Interpretations,Uncategorized — Tags: , — Andrew Whitehouse @ 4:44 pm

Swifts are back, at least here in Aberdeen. They arrived, rather suddenly as they often do, on Monday and have been gathering and swirling above the city roof tops ever since. If I’m pushed I usually claim that swifts are my favourite birds, although dippers have a strong case too. Part of the reason why I think they’re so wonderful is that incredible screeching noise they make, a sound that seems so redolent of warm summer days. The arrival of swifts is perhaps the bird arrival that I look forward to the most, and come late summer I shall be keenly looking to see how long they stay on for.

Many people wrote to me about swifts and their associations. Andrew from Crowborough said:

I’ve listened to different birds since I was a child. The one I always listen out for is swifts. They don’t make a nice sound but I always associate their arrival with the beginning of summer.

Judith from Huntingdon adds:

Whenever I hear the sound of swifts screaming above during the summer, I am transported back to the garden of the house in which I was brought up in Southport, Lancashire

Melissa from London shares my enthusiasm:

The bird song I love the best is the scream of the swift, because of its associations with summer. I always watch out for them, and this year I heard them before I saw them, on my way in to work one day. It was a heart-lifting moment. In central London you do see them flying overhead, but usually very far up and not very audible. I love going away in summer, to Devon or the Lake District, somewhere where they scream and dive almost around your head. They stay such a short time, the beeping cries of the house martins lingering a bit longer.

And Philip from Preston has similar feelings:

The screaming of parties of swifts swooping down between the house tops is perhaps my favourite bird sound (it’s hardly a song!). Coupled with the spectacle of their flight, it is so exciting it makes me want to yelp with joy! And of course it tells us that spring will soon be summer or indeed that summer is already here (but not for long – the swifts stay for such a short time). May they always return – the thought of summer without them is unbearable.

I think this last quote suggests one of the reasons why swifts are so strongly associated with summer. Their presence so closely coincides with that season, arriving in early May and leaving in early to mid August. Like a typically British summer they’re brief and ephemeral but, with their needle-winged flight and screaming cries, full of effervescent life.

May 5, 2008

How to learn bird sounds at home

Filed under: Perception — Tags: , , — Andrew Whitehouse @ 11:50 am

Learning new bird sounds is difficult for most people, and I don’t regard myself as any better than anyone else despite having been birding for most of my life. I was interested, then, to read this article by Tom Stephenson on Surfbirds about techniques he’s developed to learn bird sounds prior to going on foreign trips. I often find that when I go abroad I can learn to identify birds visually quite rapidly, particularly if I’ve leafed through the field guides beforehand. But learning sounds takes much longer. I can normally pick up a few each day but it’s a struggle and I end up spending much of the trip bewildered by an array of unfamiliar new sounds.

Soon I’m going to be spending a short time in North America and there are other trips abroad scheduled for later in the year, so I was keen to try out these techniques to see if they would help me learn at least some of the songs and calls before I go away. North America is a good place to start because I know a lot of the birds visually but don’t know the songs of many species (I’ve mainly been to America in autumn and winter previously). Also, although it’s very good for birds, it doesn’t have huge numbers of species, so the list of sounds to learn is shorter than it would be for the tropics.

The technique has a number of stages. The first is to gather together the recordings you need, which involves working out what species are likely where you are going as well as downloading, and possibly editing, the recordings. Next you need to make up various playlists of 5-10 species where the calls or songs have similar qualities. This is where the learning really starts and I found it quite a challenge to come up with these. What qualities do you select for the playlists? Pitch (high or low, ascending, descending, staying the same)? Repetition (the same phrase over and over, repetition then variation as with a song thrush)? The number of notes in the song (two, three or four note)? The pattern of sound (rambling and continuous, regular pauses)? The quality of the sound (buzzy, rattling, ‘electrical’, shrill)? Of course a lot of sounds have more than one of these qualities, which complicates things a bit, but trying to figure out the playlists is useful because it requires that you listen actively and systematically to the recordings. I’ve used pretty much all of the above qualities in making playlists, but I still think I need to work on it more, especially with the many rather similar high-pitched songs of birds like warblers.

The next stage is to come up with mnemonics that help you to link the sound to the bird. Sometimes this is relatively easy, for example when the name is onomatopoeic, but Stephenson recommends coming up with ways of linking sound and name through visualisation. The visualisation should ideally link name, sound and the appearance of the bird. For example, least flycatcher, a small American songbird, has a song that sounds a bit like it’s saying ‘titchy’, which links rather straightforwardly to its name and its small size. I imagine a small person saying ‘titchy’ when I hear the sound.

The final part of the technique involves repeatedly testing yourself on each playlist by using the random play function of your media player. This is an aspect of the technique that technology has really helped to facilitate. What’s important here is that the random element enables the mnemonic techniques to be tested actively. This active approach to remembering runs through the whole process and I think this is helpful for learning and remembering in general. Passive learning, whilst it sometimes seems popular in our nation’s schools, is rarely the most effective way of developing skills. The technique also highlights the relationship between hearing and seeing, because it’s through visualisation that the sounds are remembered. One of the important aspects of visualisation is that it tends to be much more instantaneous than the way we remember sounds. For example, when I hear the beginning of a song I often have to ‘play it through’ in my mind to try to remember what it is. Visualisation is, hopefully, much quicker.

I’ll update on my progress after I’ve been to America.

The University of Aberdeen