Nikon Monarch 7

aba events

Thoughts on the September 2011 Birding: Part 3 of 3

In Parts 1 and 2 of this blog post, I told the story of two of the three feature articles in the September 2011 issue of Birding magazine. Both articles are squarely about Birding magazine’s “prime directive” of bird identification. But with a twist. Martin Collinson’s feature article in the September 2011 issue is about an extinct species; and Bill Pranty and Kimball L. Garrett’s article is about fifteen “non-countable” exotics.

Now, to be honest, this isn’t the first time that Birding has run articles on the identification of extinct species or “non-countable” extant species. Indeed, you’ll find such articles dating back at least to the dawn of the internet era, waaay back in the 1990s.

But here’s something you simply did not find—indeed could not have found—in the pre-internet era: ID articles with online sound files.

03a McCallum Enter the third of the three feature articles in the September 2011 Birding: “Birding by Ear, Visually—Part 2: Synax,” by Arch McCallum (photo at right). (Part 1 of McCallum’s article appears in the July 2010 issue of Birding.)

Finally, here’s an article that successfully explains how to ID those pesky, burry-voiced western empids.

Yes, I accept that others have done a nice job with verbal descriptions of the songs and other vocalizations of Dusky, Hammond’s and Gray flycatchers, although, truth be told, I think most of us have been stuck, these many decades, where the great master himself, Roger Tory Peterson, was stuck: “Voice descriptions vary. The author can hear no great difference in the songs of Dusky and Hammond’s…”

And, yes, I accept that BNA Online and especially Xeno-Canto have lots of recordings—many of which may even be correctly assigned to species.

But how about an effort to explain it all, and in a manner that makes sense? In a manner that actually works?

Several years ago, I was forced to serve on an “expert panel” at a Western Field Ornithologists (WFO) meeting. An evil moderator—it was Sylvia Gallagher—played short recordings of hard bird vocalizations, and the panelists tried to figure them out. The panel was hopeless with Sylvia’s western empids. One panelist guessed Hammond’s; another guessed Dusky; yet another wondered why it wasn’t Gray. All the while, some dude in the audience was chuckling to himself.

He couldn’t take it any longer. Arch McCallum stood up, introduced himself, and instantly—and correctly—ID’d the birds. At the time, it was the most impressive stunt I’d seen at a WFO meeting.

03c Brooks A slight digression, if I may. McCallum has since been outdone by Tayler Brooks (photo at left). Two years ago, I sat on a WFO panel with Brooks. I and all but one of the other panelists crawled under the table when the moderator played clips of Red Crossbill flight calls and hummingbird wingbeats. But panelist Brooks, the sole remaining “survivor,” got them all right—Type 6 vs. Type 9 Red Crossbill, Costa’s wingbeat vs. Black-chinned wingbeat, etc. I haven’t served on a panel since.

Back to my McCallum story. Upon witnessing his deft handling of the Empidonax challenge, I was determined to have him bring his wisdom to a wider audience. Hence, the pair of articles on “Birding by Ear, Visually.” Read the articles, for sure. In McCallum’s Part 2, you’ll learn how to pay attention to, and to understand, what he refers to as syntax: the ways in which birds assemble chips, buzzes, trills, and so forth into recognizable songs. Read Part 2, and you’ll acquire a good conceptual understanding of the problem.

But there’s more to it than that.

You need to be able to hear the actual sounds. And you can do that by consulting the WebExtra for McCallum’s article. Go online and listen to the sound files. Compare them with the sound spectrograms (or “sonograms”) in the print article. Listen to them in the context of what you learned from McCallum’s detailed but breezy text.

With just a little bit of effort, you’ll find that Hammond’s, Gray, and Dusky flycatchers can be accurately identified by voice. And check this out: A little bird tells me that an article on Red Crossbill fight calls will soon be appearing in Birding. (Now, as to an article on IDing hummingbirds by the sounds of their wings, well, give us a little longer on that one.)

I’d like to wrap up with a thought about a perennial concern of mine. Birding magazine has had the reputation for several decades now of delivering top-flight content on bird identification. That’s great. But it comes with a cost. Such articles can appear offputting. They can be intimidating to beginners, even to birders of intermediate skill levels.

In my opinion, the problem isn’t usually with the material per se. More often than not, it’s with the presentation. As Kenn Kaufman, Jeff Gordon, and others have noted, bird ID can be presented as unnecessarily recondite and frustrating.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

03cx Rother And that brings me now to yet another one of the heroes of Birding magazine. (Recall that we heard about Bryan Patrick in Part 1 of this blog post, and about Bill Pranty in Part 2.) Today’s hero is Ed Rother (photo at right), the ABA’s disgustingly talented graphic designer. Ed isn’t a birder, and that’s a good thing. I really mean that. Ed’s a bright guy (and a bit of a weird dude, but I digress), and he’s committed to putting out exceptional product. He reads each article. He endeavors to understand what’s going on in the authors’ and photographers’ minds. And he succeeds, I believe, in his goal of presenting frequently advanced subject matter in a manner that ought to be accessible to anybody with interest in—but no particular prior knowledge of—the subject matter.

Check out any of the figures in Arch McCallum’s feature article. Ed Rother put a lot of care into the production of each one of those figures. They’re densely packed with information (the McCallum way!), but they’re not overwhelming. They’re not intimidating. One look is all it takes to say to yourself, “Yeah, I think I can probably handle this.”

The three feature articles in the September 2011 issue of Birding are all pretty serious, in terms of conception and content. But they don’t look that way. They don’t look especially “hard,” for want to a better word. Yet they’re full of new knowledge and new insights. The reader comes away from each feature article with better understanding and better appreciation of the natural history—especially with regard to field identification—of the wild birds of North America.

That’s a pretty impressive legacy for a guy who’s not even a birder.

Facebooktwitter
The following two tabs change content below.
Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

Latest posts by Ted Floyd (see all)

  • Richard Klim

    Ted, you commented earlier on the delays in delivery of Birding to the nether regions of the planet – and that includes the UK. It’s frustrating (but unavoidable) to see folk discussing the contents on internet forums while I’m still awaiting my copy. At least I’m usually able to get a preview and have my appetite whetted by the table of contents and feature articles published online. But recently it seems that this is often posted very late – and this time it looks as if it’ll be a close thing if September’s highlights are published on the website before October.

  • Richard Klim

    I timed that comment well (or badly?) – the online archive version has just been posted on the website. Maybe my printed copy will arrive today too.

    While I’m winning – the NAB archive hasn’t been updated for about six months… 😉

    Keep up the good work folks – it’s appreciated.

  • Ted,

    thanks for the xeno-canto plug. Not sure though if you imply (“.. especially Xeno-Canto……many of which may even be correctly assigned to species…”) that you know of mistaken ID’s on the site, but if you do, just flag the recordings! That will put them in limbo until there is agreement on the ID.

    I’d like to point out that users of XC can generate basic articles discussing birdsound on the site, of course inculding live sounds, sonograms, maps, photos: http://www.xeno-canto.org/features.php.

    Here is a how-to:

    http://www.xeno-canto.org/features.php?action=view&blognr=5

    & here is a nice recent example on vocal variation in a Manakin species: http://www.xeno-canto.org/features.php?action=view&blognr=108

    cheers!

  • Thanks, Willem-Pier, for this comment. You’ve “called me out,” as we say (and you’ve done so graciously, I have to add), for what was an unnecessarily snarky remark by me.

    Just for the record, I think xeno-canto is awesome. To see what I’m talking about, check out item #22, here:

    http://tinyurl.com/44oyax2

    And I think Dutch birders (the folks who gave us xeno-canto, inter alia) are amazing. Check this out:

    http://blog.aba.org/2011/02/a-dutch-milestone.html

American Birding Podcast
Birders know well that the healthiest, most dynamic choruses contain many different voices. The birding community encompasses a wide variety of interests, talents, and convictions. All are welcome.
If you like birding, we want to hear from you.
Read More »

Recent Comments

Categories

Authors

Archives

ABA's FREE Birder's Guide

If you live nearby, or are travelling in the area, come visit the ABA Headquarters in Delaware City.

Beginning this spring we will be having bird walks, heron watches and evening cruises, right from our front porch! Click here to view the full calender, and register for events >>

via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

  • Open Mic: Young Birder Camp at Hog Island: Coastal Maine Bird Studies for Teens September 11, 2017 3:07
    At the mic: Dessi Sieburth, an avid birder, photographer, and conservationist, is a 10th grader at Saint Francis High School in La Canada, California. He is a member of the Pasadena Audubon Young Birder’s Club and Western Field Ornithologists. Dessi enjoys birding in his home county of Los Angeles. Last summer, Dessi attended Camp Colorado, […]
  • Introducing the Whimbrel Birders Club! September 7, 2017 2:33
    Whimbrel Birders Club was established at the first annual Illinois Young Birders Symposium in August 2016. We are a birding club truly meant for everyone, no matter your age, disability, or ethnicity. […]
  • Open Mice: Kestrels–An Iowa Legacy May 16, 2017 6:29
    A few years ago, a short drive down my gravel road would yield at least one, if not two, American Kestrels perched on a power line or hovering mid-air above the grassy ditch. Today, I have begun to count myself lucky to drive past a mere one kestrel per week rather than the daily sightings. […]

Follow ABA on Twitter