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Pocket Bird Recording: In the Field

Doyle Bachman's SparrowIn his book, The Singing Life of Birds, Donald Kroodsma has a chapter on songbirds with especially beautiful songs. The Wood Thrush and the Hermit Thrush make the cut—no surprise there. But some may be surprised to learn that Kroodsma ranks the Bachman’s Sparrow among the most gifted of songbird vocalists. “It is said that their songs are unforgettable, the most beautiful of sparrow songs by far, the most beautiful of birdsongs through North America, others would say…” (p. 227).
Right: Bachman’s Sparrow. Photo by © David Cree.

Pronounced BACK-man (not BACH-man, as in Johann Sebastian), this sparrow was named by Audubon in 1834 after his clergyman friend, the Rev. John Bachman of Charleston. It’s a bird of the Deep South, a specialist of open piney woods, of the great longleaf pine forests that once spanned from Virginia to East Texas.

So when I received a couple of tiny portable i-mics for Tools of the Trade (see pp. 52–55 in the print issue of the July/August 2013 issue), where to go to test them? The pine-and-wiregrass woods of Ocala National Forest, Florida, of course! There I could quietly sit to listen and record this lovely songster.

I was thrilled to be able to try out these smartphone mics on one of my favorite sparrow species.

Below you can listen to and see my iPhone recordings using the Edutige EIM-003 and the RØDE iXY i-mics reviewed in my column in the current issue. Compare for yourself if you hear any differences or see anything in the spectrogram.

If you are musically inclined (I’m not), listen for the changes in pitch intervals between the introductory note and the trill. Reputedly they are minor or major thirds, fourths, fifths, or octaves, which is perhaps what makes Bachman’s Sparrow songs so particularly pleasing to our ears.

Here is the Bachman’s Sparrow, recorded in Marion County, Florida (March 19, 2013) using an iPhone 5 and an Edutige EIM-003 i-mic. I then imported the .mp3 sound file into the free Audacity software and selected to display it as a spectrogram. (So you can see the sound play, I created a movie by capturing the spectrogram off my laptop screen using Snapz Pro X.)

(Editor’s Note: Click on the spectrogram to be taken to the recording)

BASP recording 1

13-4-13-WebExtra-13-4-AudacityScreenSnapz001

Below is the same singing male Bachman’s Sparrow recorded using an iPhone 5 and a RØDE iXY i-mic. The RØDE mic records in stereo, so this spectrogram has two input channels.

(Editor’s Note: Click on the spectrogram to be taken to the recording)

BASP recording 2

13-4-13-WebExtra-13-4-AudacityScreenSnapz002

 

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A few more thoughts by Birding magazine Editor Ted Floyd  

 

It’s gratifying to me that “pocket bird recording,” as Diana Doyle calls it, really seems to be catching on. Diana’s article in the July/August 2013 Birding provides a great introduction to recording bird sounds in the field. She tells us how to make recordings, and then she does something else, something even more important, in my opinion: She tells us how to create sound spectrograms, and how to interpret them.

Diana has had us listen to a Bachman’s Sparrow, considered by some to have one of the loveliest songs of any North American bird. Sound spectrograms can also help us appreciate birds whose songs don’t sound all that lovely. Consider the lowly House Sparrow, whose song is invariably described by field guide authors—if it is described by them at all!—as a simple chirp. Yet look at this sound spectrogram that I made a few moments ago:

House Sparrow 

That’s from a House Sparrow singing on my street (pauses between song elements shortened somewhat, and low-frequency interference eliminated), and it seems to be saying a fair bit more than chirp.

I remember the thrill, more than a third of a century ago, when I first cracked open a field guide, and realized there were actually ways of making sense of the birds we see in the field. So it is, for so many of us, a third of a century later, with the advent of widely available resources for hearing and “seeing” birdsong at the same time. I’m learning so much. It’s an exciting time to be a birder.

—Ted Floyd
Editor, Birding magazine

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Diana Doyle

Diana Doyle

Diana Doyle writes the Tools of the Trade column in ABA’s Birding magazine, where you might have noticed that her hometown seems to change with every issue. That’s because she lives full-time aboard a 34-foot catamaran.
Diana Doyle

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