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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Tune up Your Ears

It's that time of year. Dust off your CDs or update your iPod, the birds are coming, the birds are coming.

I love to lead trips during the Spring migration, not just for the sudden burst of varied and colorful songbirds, but also their amazing diversity of sounds. Some of my trip participants think that I have some kind of special gift for identifying birds by their vocalizations. Admittedly, I'm even surprised to have survived uncountable rock concerts with my hearing intact, but there's really no secret to ear-birding. It's like the punchline to the old joke "How do I get to Carnegie Hall" ... practice, practice, practice.

Nearly all songbirds only sing during the Spring and on their breeding grounds. As ear-birders, that means we only get to observe and listen to their songs (not to be confused with calls) in the field for approximately 3 months out of 12. I need a refresher course every year. There are several good sources of bird songs available, but I use and highly recommend the Peterson's series, "Birding By Ear". There is also a follow-up, "More Birding by Ear". Both are available for birds of the Eastern/Central Region, as well as, Western Region.

It would be nearly impossible (and maybe even unnecessary) to try and listen to all six of the CDs contained in the two sets in the span of one month. You could skip around between the disks to combine all the warbler lessons, but it's a bit inconvenient. Then there are the birds, such as the empidonax flycatchers, that confuse even the pros. You'd want to put those at the top of your to-do list. Thanks to music programs like Apple's free iTunes, I've been able to create custom playlists tailored for the songbirds of the Northeast that I always forget during the long, relatively quiet winter months. So, whether you are a seasoned ear-birder or beginner, here's my suggested lesson plan:

The "Birding by Ear" series of CDs are not just recordings of bird vocalizations. They are a well planned system of lessons that group similar sounding species and describe the quality of the songs and, finally, provide very useful mnemonics. Here are a couple of samples from the discs for the Eastern/Central Region:

Sample Track from "Birding by Ear"

Sample Track from "More Birding by Ear"

Both sets of CDs are needed in order to include the large number of species found within the various regions.

The ability to recognize birds by their songs and calls adds another dimension to your nature explorations. With only a couple of weeks of practice, you'll be surprised how much you might have overlooked. Sometimes I even recognize bird songs in the soundtracks of television and films.

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