The Listening to Birds Blog

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

Why I’m recording birds

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:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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.

One Response to “Why I’m recording birds”

  1. Fiona-Jane Says:

    Andrew, I think this is great – I recently bought a wee furry toy blackbird from the RSPB and I’d love to know if they have the call recorded properly as my BB twitters quite cheerfully! Will I send you the MP3? best wishes with your project!

The University of Aberdeen