We live in an age where it is increasingly easy to document birds. We’ve reached the point where most rarities are well documented with photos and where most birders carry cameras. However, despite being in a particularly technologically advanced time in birding, there is one form of documentation which doesn’t seem to be growing much in popularity. That form is field recording.
The relative obscurity of recording bird vocalizations is surprising when you consider how much of an integral part audio is to birding. It is even more surprising when you realize that recording equipment is vastly less expensive than the high end photography equipment that seems to be everywhere in birding today.
This lack of popularity is clearly not for lack of reason to record bird song. Birding is a hobby in which a participant’s ears are just as, if not more important, than their eyes. Bird song is also beautiful and is one of the big draws of birding. You can see how recording bird song can be just as good of a way to document birds and to cement memories of a certain outing as photography.
Recordings themselves can be very beautiful, too. Even with inexpensive equipment, one can record good-quality, clear recordings. The below recording of a MacGillivray’s Warbler, for example, was captured with a $40 microphone; astonishingly cheap when compared to the amount of money many birders (myself included) are willing to spend on photography gear.
Recordings are also a great way to document rarities. Many birds are just as distinctive by sound as they are by sight. There are a number of species (think Empidonax flycatchers) where song is a key field mark. This is where field recording comes into its own. I have documented a number of rarities using recordings. For example, when I saw a La Sagra’s flycatcher in Florida in March of this year, I was very pleased to obtain a recording of one of its distinctive chip notes (even though it was a well-known and documented rarity).
To give another example, I found a Prairie Warbler in a local park this past spring. While this is not a particularly rare bird for my area and, indeed, breeds in my county, it was a good record for this location and it seemed like it might even be breeding (or attempting to breed) there. When I found the bird, it was singing away and I was able to get a quick recording of it.
Of course, a photo never hurts either:
Recordings can also be a great way to look at regional difference in bird vocalizations. Looking at spectrograms is the best way to separate the various types of Red Crossbills for instance. It’s additionally a good way to document less confusing regional differences. For example, I was very happy to obtain recordings of a “western” Warbling Vireo this summer in Colorado. This allowed me to go back and compare its song to that of the eastern birds I have recorded back home in Pennsylvania.
“Eastern” Warbling Vireo
“Western” Warbling Vireo
In the same way as taking photographs, making recordings is also a great way to remember birding trips and memorable moments. Looking back through my recordings, I remember hiking through British moorland surrounded by Eurasian skylarks,
hearing common nighthawks peenting over my house,
and seeing and hearing McCown’s Longspurs displaying at the ABA’s Camp Colorado.
While none of these are fantastic recordings on their own, they all document the occasion successfully and give me a great way to recollect on my times spent birding.
Hopefully by this point you have been persuaded of the usefulness of field recording and are ready to head out and make recordings of your own. You might therefore be wondering how one would go about doing that. I am by no means an expert in making field recordings. I haven’t actually been doing it for very long at all. However, I can recommend a few things.
To make my recordings, I use a Edutige microphone that plugs into my iPhone. With the huge increase of smartphones over the past few years, this is an inexpensive and easy option for many people. I paid $40 and it records very good quality audio for that price. If you don’t have an iPhone or are looking for something a bit better quality, there are a number of other options (of various prices) out there for you. Having never used any of those options, I am not in a place to recommend any. That being said, Ted Floyd has talked fairly extensively about what he recommends and gives far better advice than I ever could.
To record on my iPhone I simply use the pre-installed Voice Memos app although there are a number of third-party apps (some free, some not) that also work.
For uploading finished recordings to the internet, nothing beats Xeno-Canto. For those unfamiliar with it, Xeno-Canto is an online bird sound recording site. It is free and anyone can upload, listen, or download recordings. It is both a fantastic resource and an excellent way to share your recordings. It also automatically creates a good-looking and downloadable sonogram, which is a very useful tool. On top of all of that, it is very simple to embed recordings from Xeno-Canto into eBird.
You will also require a good audio-editing software. I use Audacity which is a free and easy to use software and allows you to quickly edit and improve your recordings until you are satisfied. There is also Raven, software made by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology which comes in both a free “lite” version and a paid “pro” version. I used Raven Lite until fairly recently when I switched over to Audacity as I find it easier to use.
I hope that after writing this, I have convinced at least a few people of the benefits of field recording. It is truly a great way to document birds and to form memories of birding adventures. Even better, it gives you a good tool to go back and study regional variation and bird sounds. By uploading to Xeno-Canto, you are adding to a larger database of bird recordings and making a meaningful contribution to the study of ornithology. In fact, many recent breakthroughs in ornithology have come in the form of research about or utilizing bird vocalizations. As our knowledge of birds grows, a lot of recent ornithological work has moved to the “final frontiers” of birding, much of which involves bird song. One must only think of the fairly recent breakthroughs in nocturnal flight calls, the ongoing research on Red Crossbills, or this year’s discovery of the Sichuan Bush Warbler in China (a discovery prompted by researchers hearing an unfamiliar bird song). You can see that bird song, and thus bird song recording, is becoming increasingly vital. As young birders, we have the opportunity to get involved on the cutting edge of this research and help to advance our knowledge of bird sound. Perhaps we might even discover something new of our own. Beginning to record bird song and getting interested in this field and method of documentation is a first crucial step.