Archive for the ‘bird sounds’ Category

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Sabbatical

February 9, 2011

Don’t worry – Contact Calls is not going away. In fact, I imagine that when I return from my journey through South America, I’ll have a lot to talk about here. However, until then, most of my creative energy is being directed to my companion blog, Neotropical. I know I mentioned that in the previous post, but I wanted to make it abundantly clear to anyone dropping by here that this is not a blog that has been abandoned.

I will say this much though. My first 40 days in South America have been very rewarding and a great learning experience, even though I have only really been actively birding during about 10-12 of those days. I’ve picked up triple-digits of lifers already in just visiting Colombia, and pretty much sticking only to mid-elevation habitats. I’ve also been doing a lot of sound recording, using my new rig extensively for the first time, and doing recording in a major way for the first time since my previously-discussed sound recording workshop out in California last June. After some initial concerns about how I was going to actually use my rig on a regular basis, I seem to have arrived at a pretty usable system, where I can have my recorder and mic handy along with binos and my SLR camera. It sounds like it would be tricky to have all that dangling off me during a hike, but it’s actually not that bad. I’m certainly not speedy, but I wouldn’t be anyway.

The only concern with my system is preparedness for rain. I have to bring my daypack with me, stocked with my dry-bag, “duck back”, and my rainjacket/windbreaker. So far, a couple times I’ve been caught out in the field during some inclement weather, but fortunately have averted any damage so far. When I go to the Amazon in a couple days, I’ll have to worry about a bit more than that though – namely, humidity. The accumulative effect of high humidity on my microphone is a source of concern, and although I do have some mitigating measure ready to implement, I don’t know how that will actually work in practice.

Anyway, at least up to now recording has been wonderful, and I have enjoyed my tropical birding to a greater extent because of it. I find that capturing the sounds of the birds has added an entirely new dimension to the experience, as the obscuration of the forest doesn’t impede the ability to record like it does for photography. Photography of cloud-forest birds is quite challenging, and although I’m making progress and learning things as I go, getting recordings of singing or calling birds makes me feel a stronger connection to the places I visit. Some of the highlights so far include brief (but loud) samples of Chestnut-capped Piha, Dusky Piha, Slate-crowned Antpitta, Common Pauraque, Tropical Screech-Owl, Blackish Tapaculo, White-crowned Tapaculo, Black-crested Warbler, Whiskered Wren, a faint whistle from a Barred Fruiteater, a chorus of lekking Red-ruffed Fruitcrows, a cacophonous Cauca Guan, and some dazzling whistles and creaks from a Black-collared Jay.

But back to the topic. For the next few months, whatever bird-related topics I have will probably be posted to Neotropical instead of here, just so my parents know I’m still alive. Check there for the latest and greatest on my disposition!

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My New Thing

October 24, 2010

This falls under the not-exactly-timely category of postings, but I wanted to finally talk about “what I did this summer”. Way back in January, I wrote about signing up to attend the Macaulay Library Sound Recording Workshop held annually at the Sierra Nevada Foothills Campus (SNFC) northwest of Lake Tahoe in California. The workshop was held in mid-June, and I made it there.

And let me tell you, it was awesome. So awesome that I had to italicize the word “awesome”.

The workshop is run by Macaulay Library curator Greg Budney, who has held it I believe every year since 1986. He has a small staff of about 5 people from the library and elsewhere helping him run the thing, and it is a truly outstanding opportunity to learn about the art and science of nature recording. As I mentioned in my January post, I went into this not knowing thing #1 about nature recording. Well, I suppose that’s not entirely true, as I have spent the better part of the last 5 years listening assiduously to bird song recordings, and last year I did use my old Sony cassette recorder to take voice notes while hiking in Costa Rica. I know, that’s not much of a recording resumé, but it gives you an idea of how little experience was actually required to attend this workshop. The reality is, all you need is the enthusiasm to learn about it, and a willingness to drag yourself out of bed in the wee hours of the morning every day of the week. They take care of the rest.

If you are interested in reading a very well-written description of what goes on the workshop, I recommend reading “Birdsong” by Don Stap. The middle chapter of the book is devoted to following Greg Budney during one of his summer sessions in California, and the account is very close in its description to my own experience. Although the names of workshop participants aren’t given, I was actually able to recognize one of the people mentioned, just by his description of her background – one of the great people I met there has attended most every workshop offered in the last decade.

But back to my own experience. Again, it was phenomenal. Outstanding. Terrific. Really, it was perfect in just about every way. Just a couple days in, it really began to sink in just how perfect it was. I immediately likened it to Birder Summer Camp, if there ever was such a thing. So just how was it perfect? Let me recount the ways:

Staff. Greg Budney is a remarkable, experienced, super-smart, super-affable, organized, laid-back, and helpful workshop leader. Along with Randy Little and Bill McQuay, they were able to instruct 20 of us with our wide range of previous experience in a clear, organized fashion.

Location. The Sierran foothills in mid-June is an excellent place to learn how to record birds. We had ideal weather virtually every day, with little wind and no threat of precipitation. It made getting up early as easy as it can be, and it was nice to learn the nuts and bolts of recording (which are tricky enough) without having to deal with the elements. Of course, doing real nature recording will involve learning how handle less-than-ideal recording environments, but it was great to not have to worry about that as a beginner. In addition, the foothills provide several different recording environments that are easy to reach on subsequent mornings, so that you can get a good sampling of varying bird life and habitat on successive days, thereby expanding your recording experience very quickly. Greg and Randy now know the area inside-out, and make it easy for newbies to get a handle on what to record where.

The Field Campus. We stayed at the SNFC, about a 90-minute drive from Reno. The site is located around 6000 feet amid Jeffrey and Ponderosa Pines next to the churning Yuba River, and is enchantingly quiet at night but rife with singing birds like Evening Grosbeaks and Western Tanagers during the day. We slept in large tents situated on wood platforms, and in the tents were cots that we put our sleeping bags on. In this way, it was very simple, rustic accommodation but also quite comfortable.

The Food. Our meals were ably prepared by a staff of a great chef and several amazingly friendly summer interns. I’m really not exaggerating when I say that the food was some of the best I’ve eaten anytime, anywhere. It was so good that our workshop class made a point of it to acknowledge their cooking prowess with applause every night, and at the end of the workshop we even chipped in to a kitty to give them all one enormous, well-earned tip.

The Birds. Hermit Warbler. Mountain Quail. Pileated Woodpecker. Sandhill Cranes. Gray Flycatcher. Calliope Hummingbird. Evening Grosbeak. Sage Thrasher. Fox Sparrow. These and many more species were regular staples in our daily outings. I was very impressed with how vocal and numerous the birds were.

The Workshop Itself. I learned the proverbial “ton” about sound recording. On the first day those of us lacking our own equipment were able to borrow some from their collection of loaners, and Bill McQuay got us up to speed very quickly on how to use the rigs. The very next morning we went at it, and every day thereafter. Nothing beats actual field experience and just plain practicing on your own, and that was the main component for learning how to record. This field experience was augmented with afternoon classes and sessions focusing on the equipment itself and how it works, how to organize your recordings, listening to our work.

The Participants. You know how in any group of at least 5, 10, or 20 people there’s always bound to be one person who is a downer, or weird, or who you just can’t really talk to without getting at least a little annoyed? I do. But in this workshop, I can honestly say that I liked absolutely everyone. I have no idea how that happened, but we all got along. I don’t recall a single awkward moment, or wishing I was talking to someone else. When it was time to socialize or talk about the day’s recording, I felt like I could talk to any of the other participants. We came from very different places and backgrounds – a couple women came from Mexico, one guy from Argentina, one from Peru, one from Bhutan. We had people with lot of recording experience who are professional ornithologists, and a few people who hardly knew any birds. But we all had an interest and a need to do nature recording in some way, and if nothing else, that bound us all together very strongly.

Because my intention was to focus on sound recording, I opted not to bring my digital SLR for photography. That just would have been distracting, and inconsistent with my focus. I did bring a point-and-shoot, but even for that I was too much immersed in my daily recording efforts to do much in that regard. However, you can browse some workshop photos taken by one of the staff. In the second-to-last photo in the set you can actually see me attempting to record an American Dipper.

I won’t be able to go to the class next year, as I will be in South America virtually all year. But I will make every effort to go to the class in 2012. Hopefully by then I’ll have contributed a whole slew of new recordings to the Macaulay Library. Oh yes, I guess I should update you on the whole contributing-the-recordings thing next….

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Macaulay Recording Workshop

January 22, 2010

Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, at Cabañas Valle Campanas, Santa Elena, Costa Rica. © Eric DeFonso

A few weeks ago Nathan Pieplow explained on his excellent blog Earbirding how he got into recording bird songs. In his post he also put out a call to arms as it were to his readers to go out and get more involved in recording as a means of making real contributions to the science of ornithology, and a couple weeks later he provided a short, off-the-cuff sample of the myriad of topics and areas of research that are still essentially wide open to study.

I took the posting very seriously, and almost personally. If you know me you know that I’ve been immersing myself the past few years in bird song, studying it continuously and spending more than just a few dollars on CDs and a few hours organizing my iTunes library to do my own systematic study of bird vocalizations. And I definitely have contemplated getting into recording. Every time I did though I tended to dismiss it however, thinking that people like Nathan and Andrew Spencer and the dozens of other regular contributors to xeno-canto.org basically have the situation covered, and that I’m just a little too late to the game to contribute all that much. I’d enjoy it as a personal pastime, sure, but I wasn’t sure I could rationalize the initial expenditure on recording gear, and then later the other time and money expenditure on ‘support infrastructure’ needed to do justice to the pursuit. Think of it this way — when you buy a nice new digital camera, say a Canon Digital Rebel XTi, you are effectively buying more than just the camera itself. You are also buying into batteries, memory cards, a laptop, a storage system, maybe a website subscription for posting your photos, basically all the things such a camera needs if you are going to use it on a regular basis. I just figured that going into sound recording would entail a similar approach, and although that itself doesn’t scare me, it seemed like that wasn’t something I should distract myself with right now as I am trying to finish my ongoing book project.

Well, I finally changed my mind, and have since reserved a spot in this year’s Macaulay Library Recording Workshop out in the northern Sierra Nevada’s in June. I didn’t come to the decision easily, but I figured that it’s an excellent deal, and if I ever do want to get into recording on a larger scale, I shouldn’t just assume that this workshop will be around forever, at least not with this level of accessibility and affordability. Also, I’ve been toying with the idea of going back to graduate school (again), this time in something ornithological; if I ever do that, I’m definitely going to do something with bird vocalizations, ethology and field work. It’d be silly for me to pass up this opportunity to get some hands-on training and explanation from experts. Greg Budney helps teach the class, and he’s a celebrity in the admittedly small circle of bird sound people.

Thanks Nathan for your encouraging words on your blog, and showing someone like me the way. I’m really excited about this class!

(By the way, this photo is me with my ancient Sony cassette recorder, which I used only to make verbal notes of sounds that I was hearing in the Monteverde cloud forest in Costa Rica. I’m all aglow because I had just heard, then seen, my lifer Resplendent Quetzal.)

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The Fremont Street Experience

March 24, 2006

One other amusing bird-related experience we had in Vegas was the Fremont Street Experience, a block-long archway of lights over Fremont Street in downtown that act as a movie-screen for passersby on their way to casinos and shops. High-wattage speakers also line the street providing booming audio. One of their shows is called “American Freedom”, a 4-minute long rip-roaring, flag-waving bonanza to the music of John Philip Sousa.

At the conclusion of the piece, a Bald Eagle soars across the screen, and we got to hear the eagle’s call. Or rather, we got to hear what the vast majority of America seems to think an eagle call sounds like — an aggressive, extended high-pitched keeeeerrrrrrr, suspiciously similar to that of a Red-tailed Hawk.

I just think it would be hilarious if the audience could hear what a Bald Eagle really sounds like. Heads would explode from the cognitive dissonance of realizing that our majestic national bird emits whimpering cackles instead of a clarion screech. Of course, that realism would take away from the triumphalist image of the bird, so on we go, perpetuating Bald Eagle myths based only on its striking size and plumage.

Although, perhaps to its long-term benefit – you could argue that the species is well-served by Americans’ misconception of its call, which fits a preconceived notion of menace and thus makes the bird more sympathetic to Americans than it otherwise might be. Eagles get shot enough as it is, and there’s no need to reduce its stature in the eyes of a country with a history of killing these remarkable creatures.