Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Spring and Ear Birding

This Friday at 6:45PM marks the arrival of the Spring equinox in New York City. It is also time for my annual reminder to clear your ears and dust off your "Birding by Ear" bird-song identification guides. Longtime followers of this blog understand the importance of listening to the recordings to prepare for the inevitable waves of northbound birds. If identifying birds by their calls and songs frustrates you, then now is the best time to start studying. With the right tools it much easier than you think.

There are several sources available to help you learn how to identify birds by ear, but the best I've found is the Peterson Field Guides series of CDs. These discs are not just reference recordings, but well organized lessons that use groups of similar sounding species, repetition and mnemonics to help you quickly learn sounds. Here on the east coast of North America you should purchase "Birding by Ear: Eastern/Central" and "More Birding by Ear Eastern and Central North America". There are discs available for the west coast, as well.

Below is a list of the tracks on which I recommend you concentrate. Obviously, there are many more common species in our area which you could add as you feel needed.

The colorful wood-warblers are the most important songbirds to learn. Once you've purchased the discs, use iTunes (or similar software) to import the following tracks:

Name Album Disc # Track #
Sing-songers Birding by Ear, Eastern/Central 1 4
Warbling Songsters Birding by Ear, Eastern/Central 2 6
Wood Warblers & a Warbling Wren Birding by Ear, Eastern/Central 3 1
Warblers: Buzzy More Birding by Ear, Eastern/Central 2 1
Warblers: Simple More Birding by Ear, Eastern/Central 2 2
Warblers: Two-Parted More Birding by Ear, Eastern/Central 2 3
Warblers: Complex More Birding by Ear, Eastern/Central 2 4
Empidonax Flycatchers More Birding by Ear, Eastern/Central 1 4

Note that I included the empidonax flycatchers on the list as they are notoriously difficult to separate visually, but have very distinctive vocalizations.

The woodland thrushes are also incredible songsters, so I recommend the following tracks:

Name Album Disc # Track #
Thrushes Birding by Ear, Eastern/Central 3 2
Thrushes More Birding by Ear, Eastern/Central 1 7


One family of bird vocalizations that I tend to neglect are the shorebirds. More often than not, during spring migration a group of calling shorebirds passing overhead are noted only as "flock of unidentified peeps". While their calls and songs may not be nearly as melodic as the wood-warblers, they are each unique and easily identifiable if you take a few minutes each day to study the recommended "Birding by Ear" tracks.

Name Album Disc # Track #
Shorebirds: Pairs More Birding by Ear, Eastern/Central 3 1
Shorebirds: Plovers More Birding by Ear, Eastern/Central 3 2
Shorebirds: Whistlers More Birding by Ear, Eastern/Central 3 3
Shorebirds: Peepers More Birding by Ear, Eastern/Central 3 4
Shorebirds: Other More Birding by Ear, Eastern/Central 3 5

In case you were wondering, I don't make any money promoting the Peterson Field Guide series. I have just found that their systematic approach to learning bird-song to be the best available. Our local populations of birds, as well as, overwintering species have already begun to sing, so don't procrastinate. If you spend even just 20 minutes a day listening during your commute, by the time all the warblers begin streaming through NYC I guarantee you'll be able to find many birds ... even with your eyes closed.

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