Document Rarities—Cheaply, Quickly, Easily, and Credibly
by Ted Floyd
The Nikon CoolPix revolutionized birding.
Not so long ago—not all that long ago at all—bird photography was practiced by just a few. Photographing birds used to require a lot of money, a lot of time, a lot of patience, and most of all a lot of skill. Then along came the Nikon CoolPix, and, suddenly, everybody was getting great photos of birds.
Fifteen years later, the Nikon CoolPix is utterly passé. But its legacy is alive and well. Today every birder carries a camera in the field, right? Digital photography is so easy. It’s quick. Best of all, it’s “free”!
Find a rarity, snap a few photos, upload the images to Flickr, and, in an instant, you’re a legend. Why, you can accomplish all that while the bird is still under observation. Increasingly, I think it’s fair to say, birders are expected to photo-document rarities.
Sorry, but I’m just not into the photography thing. I have my reasons.
First, cost. The gizmos cost money. But that’s the least of my objections. Let’s be honest: A small—and perfectly serviceable—digital camera costs but a fraction of what you’d pay for a high-end scope or a bird tour. If I majorly wanted a camera, I’d buy one. No, cost isn’t really the hang-up for me. But what about bulk and inconvenience?
I travel light. I bird light. As I think many of you know, I’m a practitioner of bare-naked birding: I often bird without binoculars. I just don’t want to schlep a camera around—certainly not one of those long lenses, and, frankly, not even a point-and-shoot. And I take exception to the whole idea of point-and-shoot. Which brings me to my next objection.
The klutz factor. In my opinion, light bulb jokes aren’t funny. Changing light bulbs is hard for me. As far as I’m concerned, operating a camera—even a point-and-shoot—might as well be brain surgery. By the time I have the camera settings figured out, the rarity is long gone.
And even if the bird sticks around, what’s the chance it’ll pose for a great photo? I’ve been in countless situations in which a rarity just wouldn’t show well enough for photography. The bird is holed up in dense vegetation. It’s singing its head off. You catch a glimpse of the bird: good enough for you to make a definitive ID, but you simply cannot get your camera on the bird. Or, if you do, it’s 250 feet away, 75% obscured by foliage, and 25% obscured by shadow.
Back on April 17th of this year, I was running—literally, running—back from my kids’ school bus stop. Along the way, I heard a Black-and-white Warbler, rare in Boulder County, Colorado, where I live. As you can probably imagine, I wasn’t carrying a camera. I didn’t have binoculars, either. I didn’t even have my cell phone or wallet—too much bulk. Yet I was able to obtain good documentation of the occurrence of the Black-and-white.
You see, I was carrying my VN-8100PC, a tiny device for recording sounds. I bought mine, new, on Amazon a few months ago. The cost was $50—and that’s the deluxe package, with carrying case (worth it), USB cable (you need it), and instruction manual (maybe I’ll read it one of these days).
Anyhow, I slowed down, stopped, reached into my pocket, booted up the VN-8100PC, pointed it at the Black-and-white, and recorded its song. The entire process required about 10 seconds. I’d audio-documented that bird in less time that it takes to say Vee En Eighty One Hundred Pee See. Alright, that’s a slight exaggeration. But the following is not: The only thing complicated about this gizmo is its name.
Now suppose the scenario had played out a bit differently. Let’s pretend I was birding with a good photographer with a great camera. Would she have been able to get on the Black-and-white? I don’t think so. The bird was up in a tall cottonwood, on the other side of a sign that said, plain as day, “DO NOT ENTER.” Spring came early to Colorado this year, and the distant tree was already leafed out. The bird refused to come out for good viewing, and I question whether it could have been photo-documented.
I can accept that maybe you weren’t blown out of the water by the quality of my recording of the Black-and-white Warbler. Well, the bird was far off—near the top of a tall tree whose base, according to the Google Distance Calculator, was 175 feet from where I made the recording. And there are those annoying human footsteps (I was standing along a busy trail) in the recording.
So how does the VN-8100PC perform under better conditions? Here's a recording I made—in Yuma County, Colorado, on May 25 of this year—of a fairly close Grasshopper Sparrow (with a distant Cassin’s Sparrow audible in the background). “Fairly close” is all relative. Grasshopper Sparrows don’t let you get all that close. They sing faint, buzzy, high-pitched songs that can be surprisingly hard to hear. No problem for the VN-8100PC, which picked up every detail of that Grasshopper Sparrow’s song. Listen again: You can even hear those wimpy tik notes that precede the high-pitched trill.
But I’m getting off track. As a VN-8100PC user, I make no pretenses to acoustical glory. I am not—and I don’t aspire to be—a Paul Schwartz (depicted at right) or Donald Kroodsma, an Arch McCallum or Nathan Pieplow. I’m a tightwad and a klutz, remember, and I travel light: I’m a VN-8100PC kinda guy. My goal is to document and understand what I’m hearing in nature. That’s all. And that’s where the VN-8100PC excels.
I got pretty close to that Grasshopper Sparrow, but, more often than not, I’m nowhere near the bird I’m interested in. Listen to this recording of a Virginia’s Warbler, which I made in Boulder County, Colorado, on May 10 of this year. The bird was nearly 275 horizontal feet away from me, and it was perched on a high snag atop a steep rock outcropping; I’d say it was 75 vertical feet away. Through my high-end 10-power binoculars, the bird was a barely discernible pale dot. With the VN-8100PC, however, it’s clearly a Virginia’s Warbler.
To my ear, the Virginia’s Warbler isn’t an impressively loud singer. It’s a bit more robust than a Grasshopper Sparrow, but, still, I’d rate the song of a Virginia’s as pretty wimpy. Even wimpier, I’d say, is the lisping call note of its congener, the Orange-crowned Warbler. But this Orange-crowned Warbler’s call note comes across reasonably strongly in a recording I obtained in Boulder County, Colorado, on May 4 of this year. (In the background, you can hear Canada Geese, House Sparrows, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and western chorus frogs.)
Oh, and to beat a dead horse: The Orange-crowned was in an impenetrable tangle of forbs and willows. A photo might have shown a bit of the bird, a lot of leaves, and shadows everywhere.
Virginia’s and Orange-crowned warblers are common fare in Boulder County, Colorado. What about a full-on rarity, a “mega”? For a while this past spring, I’d been wondering if the VN-8100PC would ever be called upon in the service of documenting a mega.
The date was May 23, 2012. The time was 8:03 in the morning. I was out at my local patch and I heard the unmistakable song of an Eastern Meadowlark, never before documented to have occurred in well-birded Boulder County. I walked over toward the bird, whipped out my VN-8100PC (that took one second), removed it from the carrying case (that took another second), booted up (add another second), pushed “RECORD,” and got this recording. That is to say, I needed approximately five seconds from the time I reached into my pocket to the instant I had audio-documented the county’s first Eastern Meadowlark.
It all happened so fast. I made the recording at a distance of nearly 200 feet. Then I ran over toward the bird and watched it for a few seconds. Then it flew away. With a camera, would I have gotten a shot of the flying bird’s rectrices? Well, I sure wouldn’t have! And what about the bird’s non-yellow malar region? I could sorta make that out through my binoculars, but I’m not sure a camera would have picked it up.
Meadowlarks have the convenient habit of perching out in the open. But Connecticut Warblers tend not to. Which brings me to the morning of June 2, 2012.
The setting was a private ranch in Lincoln County, Colorado. Our little group of birders was on a Connecticut Warbler, a fantastic rarity in Colorado. For a few dreadful minutes—and for what seemed like an eternity—the bird just wouldn’t come out for a view.
No problem. It was singing constantly, I had my VN-8100PC, and I obtained this recording (warm-up by a distant Yellow Warbler, and you can hear humans in the background). The Connecticut Warbler’s rollicking staccato song is as distinctive, I would say, as its brilliant eye-ring.
There’s a happy ending to this story: The bird hung around for well over an hour, and we got great photos. And close to half an hour of excellent audio documentation.
But suppose it hadn’t worked out that way. Suppose the bird had flushed after a few minutes—before anybody had gotten a photo. In that event, we would have had outstanding audio documentation of one of the most distinctive songs of any wood-warbler. And, as many bird records committee members will tell you, Connecticut vs. Mourning can be a tough call. Unless you hear—and, better yet, audio-record—the bird!
Finding a Connecticut Warbler is exciting, no matter what. Finding a Warbling Vireo?—probably not as thrilling, you’d be excused for thinking.
Believe it or not, birders in Boulder County, Colorado, have recently gotten all excited about Warbling Vireos. As it turns out, both “species” of lower-case, hyphenated warbling-vireos occur in Boulder County. Eastern Warbling-Vireos breed in the lowlands in the eastern part of the county (indicated on the map by yellow shading); Western Warbling-Vireos are common in the foothills and mountains (green shading) in western Boulder County.
Photo-documentation of warbling-vireos is practically impossible. The two warbling-vireos are so-called “cryptic taxa”—with subjective differences in overall coloration and millimeter-scale differences in the thickness of the bill. But they sound different, appreciably so. Listen to this apparent Western Warbling-Vireo (with a Spotted Towhee at the beginning), recorded in the Boulder County foothills on May 25, 2012. Now listen to this apparent Eastern Warbling-Vireo, recorded a few miles to the east on May 29, 2012.
The warbling-vireos may well be split into two species. But the AOU needs data; the AOU needs publications. We in Boulder County are working on it! And we’re doing it with the fifty-dollar, featherweight, fit-in-your-pocket VN-8100PC.
I’ve said it already, but it bears repeating. The VN-8100PC is ridiculously easy. Turn it on, press “RECORD,” and you’re done. Here now is a sampler of recordings I made earlier this spring in Colorado. All were obtained under conditions that might have been a bit trying for photography—and hugely trying for audio set-ups of the sort employed by Paul Schwartz and his acolytes.
- This Long-billed Dowitcher, which I recorded in Boulder County on May 6, was flying directly away. A photo of the bird’s tail would have been nice, but, when it comes to Long-billed vs. Short-billed, nothing beats the flight call.
- More shorebirds, also flying away. I didn’t get a photo—surprise of surprises—but I was able to get this recording of the squeaky, scratchy, distinctively high-pitched flight calls of these White-rumped Sandpipers migrating through Boulder County on June 11.
- This Willow Flycatcher recording, which I got in Boulder County on May 24, leaves something to be desired. Then again, it was well before sunrise on an overcast morning, and the bird was far away. (Maybe a camera would have detected a single dark pixel against a gray sky?) And check this out: I believe this bird may be identifiable to subspecies. (Try that with a camera!) More on Willow Flycatcher subspecies in Part 2.
- Gray Vireos are awesome. Alas, this particular bird just wouldn’t emerge from the center of a dense juniper in Las Animas County. But it was singing its heart out, right through the hottest part of the hot afternoon of May 20.
- I commented earlier that Grasshopper Sparrows and Virginia’s Warblers sing wimpy songs. But they’re outclassed in that regard by the über-wimpy calls of the Bushtit. Even so, this male Bushtit’s stuttering utterances, recorded April 15 in Boulder County, were well detected by the VN-8100PC. Needless to say, the bird was working a dark, dense hedgerow.
- Boulder County’s Gregory Canyon (depicted at right) has an amazing knack for attracting eastern vagrants in early June. But there’s a problem: The canyon’s lush broadleaf vegetation makes it hard enough just to see the rarities in there—let alone get great photos. No problem! Just unsheathe your VN-8100PC, and obtain recordings like this one, of a rare Hooded Warbler (with Warbling Vireo, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, and Western Tanager) on June 6.
- This after-second-year male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, uncommon in Boulder County, was fiendishly hard to catch a glimpse of. Somehow he was always on the other side of a tall conifer. And when I finally did see the bird, he was almost directly overhead, affording a nice view of the cloaca—but little else. However, he never stopped singing! Listen to this clip, recorded at least 150 feet from the bird on the morning of May 26. And here’s a challenge: How many other bird species can you hear in this clip?
Well! Is there anything the VN-8100PC can’t handle?
In a word, yes.
- Listen to this American Bittern (with several Red-winged Blackbirds). The bittern was loud and clear (and invisible) when my kids and I heard it in a small marsh in Boulder County, County, on May 9 of this year. But the “thunder pumper” doesn’t come across all that well in this recording.
- Now listen to this winnowing Wilson’s Snipe (with an American Robin in the background), which I recorded in Boulder County, Colorado, on May 12, 2012. In the field that “morning” (the time was oh-dark-thirty), the bird was downright loud. It was straight overhead, and I half-wondered if the unseen bird would crash into me. Yet the snipe’s spooky winnowing just doesn’t impress in this recording.
- Finally, listen to this Western Screech-Owl, which I heard in Alamosa County, Colorado, on March 30 of this year. I never saw the bird (it was late at night), so this lame sound recording is better than nothing. And let me dwell on that point for just a moment. As I said earlier, I’m not into audio-recording for the sake of obtaining glorious clips à la Kroodsma, McCallum, and Pieplow. I just want to be able to document that such-and-such a bird occurred in such-and-such a place on such-and-such a date. That’s all. And in the case of this Western Screech-Owl, the recording is adequate proof of the bird’s occurrence. But the basic question remains unanswered: Why is this recording—of a close-up owl on a quiet evening—so poor?
In all three of the case studies adduced above, we’re dealing with birds that produce low-frequency sounds. The VN-8100PC performs poorly below two kilohertz. The problem is low-frequency interference from the contraption itself; we don’t hear that interference in “real life,” but it comes through in the recordings.
A final point before we move on to Part 2. Let’s listen again to that Western Screech-Owl. Hmm... That’s a decent improvement: The owl is louder now, and the background noise is gone. What happened? Did I move a lot closer to the bird? Nope. Did I alter the settings on the VN-8100PC? Nope. Believe it or not, that’s the exact same clip. How can that be? We’ll start off Part 2 with an exploration of the matter.