Friday, March 18, 2016

Turn Up Your Ears

On a walk through Brooklyn's Prospect Park the other day I was struck by the profound uptick in bird sounds. Most of our overwintering sparrows, such as White-throated, Fox and Dark-eyed Juncos are suddenly vocalizing. The clear, clean, melodic "pure sweet canada canada canada" of the white-throateds; the rich, whistling slurred song of the Fox Sparrows and the high trills of the juncos are beginning to fill a soundscape which had been mostly dominated by occasional chip notes, jay cries or nuthatch nasal "yanks" all winter. In addition, early arrivals like Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds are creating a cacophony of songs as they jockey for mates at the park's most desirable nesting locations. This all brings me to the point of this posting - it's time to tune up your ears!

The majority of songbirds only sing during the spring, so an entire year will pass before most of us will hear our favorite neotropic species again. As an earbirder, thankfully I still have my hearing, but I still need to refresh my audio memory. What better time to do it than the weekend of the Vernal Equinox?

If you have the right tools it is much easier than you think to learn how to identify birds by their vocalizations.

There are several sources available to help you learn how to identify birds by ear, but the best one for my money is the Peterson Field Guides series of CDs (as far as I am aware, they are not available as digital downloads). These discs are not reference recordings, but rather 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 recommended tracks to study. 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 each 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

Please note that I don't make any money promoting the Peterson Field Guide series. I have found that their systematic approach to learning bird-song to be the best available. If you have recommendations for other learning tools, feel free to email me or put something in the comments section. So, if you spend a mere 15 - 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 a lot more birds ... even with your eyes closed.

No comments:

Exploring urban nature, birds, birdwatching, birding, hummingbirds, butterflies, dragonflies, bees, hawks, raptors, wildflowers, trees, mushrooms, environment, binoculars, spotting scope