Open Mic: Bionic Birding - Microphone Assisted Birding in the Digital Age
by Nate Swick
At the Mic: Rob Fergus
Dr. Rob Fergus is an ornithologist who specializes in urban ecology and human/wildlife interactions. In addition to researching and consulting on human/bird interactions in cities across the United States, Latin America, and Europe, he currently teaches at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J. and Rosemont College in Philadelphia, Pa. He also writes at The Birdchaser and Urban Birdscapes blogs, and contributes to Birding is Fun.
Other Open Mics by Rob include Dreaming both big and small: saving birds one county (and box of donuts) at a time.
This past spring I started recording the nocturnal bird migration over my house with an Oldbird 21c microphone. The microphone sits out in my yard, and I run a cable from the mic to my computer inside my home. Every night my computer automatically records the sounds picked up by the mic, and each morning I use several other programs to review the recording, locate bird calls, and make spectrograms of the calls. Then I identify and catalog the calls by referring to online resources and other published night flight call (NFC) libraries.
I was quickly amazed by the number of birds calling over my home each night. Early in the spring, most of the calls were White-throated Sparrows--sometimes hundreds a night. Other birds weren’t as easy to identify. One call was particularly puzzling, and in consultation with more experienced listeners on the NFC email list, I was finally able to identify it as a Virginia Rail call.
This was amazing! Virginia Rails are almost impossible to find in my county, but one had flown over my house while I was asleep! I recorded another one flying over a couple days later. I didn’t want to miss rare birds like this. As a birder, it wasn’t enough for me to study migration by finding and identifying bird calls after the fact, I wanted to hear the bird live!
So I started spending hours each night listening to the microphone by plugging headphones into my laptop. As I sat at my kitchen table, I could hear the birds flying high overhead--it was like having a telescope for my ears! While I might hear only a few dozen calls outside with my naked ears, the microphone could pick up hundreds of higher or more distant birds and soon my listening was rewarded--I heard and recorded the passage of such local rare migrants as Whimbrel, Short-billed Dowitcher, Black-crowned Night Heron, and American Bittern. My yard list was booming! While a local birder might be lucky to hear one or two Black-billed Cuckoos in a given year, I could often hear a half dozen or more before bedtime! And since I was recording everything I heard, I could go back later and review the recording to help me identify the nearly impossibly short and similar sounding flight calls of warblers, sparrows, thrushes, and more! I wasn’t just counting birds that went bump in the night--I was documenting my identifications with sound recordings and spectrograms.
I was making all kinds of discoveries, learning a ton, and enjoying migration more than ever before. Everything was great. Or so I thought.
Turns out several of my birding buddies were ticked off that I was reporting these birds on my personal eBird account. My county year list was now tainted. They told me that birds heard through a microphone shouldn’t count for your personal lists. Counting birds heard through a microphone feed was cheating. Whereas I found listening to high flying migrants through a microphone similar to watching distant birds through a spotting scope, one of my friends said he thought it was more like counting birds that you saw on a closed circuit camera feed. Not cool.
As far as I can tell, the ABA listing rules do not prohibit counting birds heard live through a digital device. Since I was hearing the birds live, albeit with the aid of digital enhancement, I counted them. But maybe I was wrong? Maybe digitally assisted listening shouldn’t count? In this digital birding age of microphones, digital cameras, and other devices, what are we to make of bird encounters mediated by digital technology? We are way beyond arguing over the countability of heard birds. Now we have to ask if birds heard through a digital listening device count.
So where do you come down on this issue? Is listening to birds through a microphone a legitimate and even cutting-edge birding technique, or is it cheating--a fly by night dirty trick?