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The Best of Times

I’ve always enjoyed listening to birds. In my earliest days as a birder, I was intrigued by the assertion in Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide that “some birders do 90 percent of their field work by ear.” And it was this passage from Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac that really captivated me:

“There is a peculiar virtue in the music of elusive birds. Songsters that sing from topmost boughs are easily seen and as easily forgotten; they have the mediocrity of the obvious.”

It’s not just that it’s possible to identify heard-only birds. What Leopold is saying is that “ear birding,” as we have come to call it, is particularly virtuous. A seen-only Scarlet Tanager or Indigo Bunting is a ho-hum entry on your checklist; know the bird by its nocturnal flight call, though, and you have joined a higher class of mortals. This is “inside baseball” stuff, the birderly equivalent of complex function theory or the Beethoven late string quartets.

Hold on a sec. I said that’s how I used to regard birdsong. But that doesn’t necessarily equate to my present outlook. Which reminds me of a good-natured quarrel I had, a few years back, with a friend, Barbara.

“The problem with what you’re saying, Ted, is that you’re assuming I’m the same person now that I was back then,” Barbara counseled. “You’re digging up something that happened long ago. I was barely 80 at the time.”

Barbara, who celebrates her 99th birthday later this summer, has changed a lot in the 21st century. How could she not have? I mean, the world is so different now than when Barbara was 80. Why, they didn’t even have Wi-Fi when Barbara began her ninth decade on this Earth.

 

With participants in my state ornithological society’s annual convention, I spent the past few days at The Nature Conservancy’s idyllic Carpenter Ranch in northwestern Colorado. It’s the sort of place that, if you squint hard enough through your rose-tinted glasses, could pass for something out of the 1980s or even the 1880s. The old ranch buildings are still there; so are the old entrance road and railroad crossing; and the ancient river still runs the same old course at the base of the same old hills. They have Wi-Fi at the Carpenter Ranch now, but, other than that, things are pretty much the same.

The wet hayfield by the ranch entrance was home to Savannah Sparrows, as was the case, no doubt, in the blessèd, bucolic 1980s. I made this recording of one of them:

In the floodplain forest beyond, I recorded this Fox Sparrow:

I also recorded this sparrow:

We’ll talk more about this sparrow a little later, but, for now, let’s just say that it sure sounds like one of the species I knew so well in the 1980s. It sounds like an Eastern Towhee, which, despite its name, is a kind of sparrow.

Anyhow, I’ve thus far conveyed a birding experience that Peterson and especially Leopold would have approved of. Easily 90% of our Carpenter Ranch sparrows were aural detections, and there was something satisfying, something frankly virtuous, about recognizing all those Brewer’s Sparrows, Lark Sparrows, Green-tailed Towhees, and other sparrows by their distinctive songs and calls.

Appearances to the contrary, the Carpenter Ranch is the sort of place where one experiences innovation and transformation. Photo by © Ted Floyd.

At the Carpenter Ranch, you can repose on a stream bank or hay bale, shut your eyes tight, soak in the sunshine and sparrows, and imagine that you’re back in the late 20th century. Then reality sets in. During the 15 years I’ve been coming to the Carpenter Ranch, everything’s changed, what with all the energy development in the region: more traffic along U.S. 40, more noise from the power plant across the way, and you actually have to stand in line for your turn at the men’s room at the convenience store down the road. Today the county roads are routinely treated with magnesium chloride, and that stuff makes its way into the ranch’s forests and hayfields. With all the “fracking” in the region, there’s concern about lead, mercury, and uranium getting into the water. The jury’s still out on that one, but there’s no debate about this one: There’s more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and the climate is changing.

Something else has changed. My friend Barbara saw it. We humans have changed, all of us. We’re not the same as we were 15 years ago, when Barbara was in her early 80s and when I first set foot on the Carpenter Ranch. Back then, way back then, I experienced the Carpenter Ranch much the way Peterson and Leopold would have had it.

No longer.

 

Even though we were ostensibly birding the Carpenter Ranch, we were endlessly distracted by butterflies. Sure, birders have always noticed butterflies, and, back in the day, a very small number of birders actually bothered to try to ID them in the field. But now everybody’s doing it! Greg Neise and others have remarked on the surge of internet photo sharing groups for birders, but what amazes me even more is the recent explosion of digital resources for identifying insects in nature.

It was basically impossible to enjoy insect study until the invention and subsequent proliferation of inexpensive digital cameras. Jeffrey Glassberg (Butterflies Through Binoculars) had the right idea, but he was ahead of his time. The real breakthrough has been digital photography, as a result of which countless thousands of enthusiasts are being enlisted every year.

Butterflies at the Carpenter Ranch, June 2017, left–right: Boisduval’s Blue, Zerene Fritillary, Pahaska Skipper, Persius Duskywing. Until recently, it was essentially impossible to identify such butterflies in the field. Today thousands of enthusiasts—many of them recent recruits from the birding world—routinely do it. Photos by © Ted Floyd.

I mentioned Greg Neise a moment ago. Neise’s Theorem, if we may call it that, is that digital photography is changing the way we bird. It’s not a quantitative change: more enjoyment, better viewing, etc. Rather, it’s a qualitative change, a substantively different way of engaging birds and other objects in nature. Case in point: a Bobolink we saw—and photographed—at the Carpenter Ranch. This guy:

Photos like this, readily obtained with point-and-shoot cameras, cause us to think in new ways about birds and other objects and phenomena in nature. Photo by © Ted Floyd.

One sees a photo like this, and one automatically wants to know: How old is this bird? So I emailed the photo to molt guru Peter Pyle, who immediately responded that the bird probably cannot be aged. Bummer, but that’s beside the point. The bigger point is this: Digital photos lead us to think about molts and plumages in ways we tended not to in the not-so-distant past.

Or not. Maybe you and I are in a different place, Bobolink-wise. Maybe alls you want to know is “What’s This Bird?” The internet is full of resources for that sort of inquiry. That’s great, and I hasten to point out that that’s where I am right now with blues and skippers, with fritillaries and duskywings.

Whether I’m trying to name a blue or age a Bobolink, I’m doing something I couldn’t do 15–20 years ago. No, that’s not quite right. I’m doing things I hadn’t even conceived of doing as recently as Barbara’s 80th birthday. Not all that long ago, blues were just blues, and Bobolinks were just Bobolinks. ID’ing blues was insoluble, aging Bobolinks totally impracticable.

 

I’m inclined to say that I have no Carpenter Ranch Savannah Sparrow images to show you, but that’s not quite right. Here is a spectrogram of the recording I obtained out in the hayfield:

There are more “field marks,” if you will, in this spectrogram than in any photo or illustration of a Savannah Sparrow! Here’s the Fox Sparrow:

In addition to this particular utterance, the Fox Sparrow also sang this song:

These are clips of single songs, but I also made recordings of longer sequences. And when I looked at those longer sequences, I noticed something cool: The Savannah Sparrow always sang the same song, but the Fox Sparrow alternated between two very different songs.

Here is the Savannah Sparrow, singing the exact same song five times in a row:

And here is the Fox Sparrow, alternating between the two songs:

Would I have noticed any of this, had I merely heard the birds, had I not subsequently analyzed the recordings? Hang on to that thought for a moment because we still have another, more pressing matter to consider: that mystery sparrow, the one that I said sounded like an Eastern Towhee. Problem is, Eastern Towhees aren’t supposed to occur at the Carpenter Ranch. That, and I played a trick on you. That recording wasn’t the bird’s whole song. Here now is the entire song:

This is a Song Sparrow, who, for whatever reason, starts its song with a towhee-like element.

Not only that, it takes this towhee-like element, and plunks it down at other points within the “normal” Song Sparrow song. So the “towhee” element is functioning as a morpheme. Here’s a recording of the towhee-like morpheme right smack dab in the middle of the song:

Is the bird really borrowing from an Eastern Towhee? Short answer: I don’t know. Longer answer: I’m not totally prepared to rule out that possibility. Years ago at the Carpenter Ranch, Mark Alt and I heard an eerily Eastern-like towhee, and, more recently, I’ve recorded Eastern-like songs from birds that appear to be otherwise “normal” Spotted Towhees. “It’s complicated,” as the millennials say.

Complicated, yes, but no longer beyond reach. With free software and inexpensive gear, ordinary amateurs can easily and definitively identify “towhee” morphemes in the utterances of a Song Sparrow. Today we readily notice that Savannah Sparrows sing the same song over and over again, whereas Fox Sparrows mix it up; speaking for myself, I can say I wasn’t aware of such differences until I started making recordings. And in a recent issue of Birding, Lauryn Benedict and Karan Odom describe an ongoing effort by the birding community to document female birdsong—far more pervasive, we are discovering, than anyone knew.

All of the preceding is “ear birding,” but of a sort totally different from what Peterson and Leopold preached and practiced. This is the aural equivalent of “feather birding,” employing hardware, freeware, and crowdsourcing that simply didn’t exist until recently. But is it “virtuous”? I wonder what Aldo Leopold would think.

 

Leopold’s “elusive birds” no longer elude us. Neither do butterflies and other insects, notably absent from the pages of A Sand County Almanac. And you won’t read about Bobolink molts and plumages, I’m pretty sure, anywhere in Leopold’s vast oeuvre.

Leopold is a literary and scientific hero, of course, but there’s something about his worldview that bugs me. It’s the idea that “[t]here are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot,” as Leopold put it so memorably. He’s not just saying that that’s the way things are. He’s also saying, or so it seems to me, that that’s the way things ought to be. One senses in the pages of A Sand County Almanac and other writings a quasi-religious distinction between those who “get it” and those who do not, between those who are possessed of a certain “virtue” and those who are not.

Things are different now. With the proverbial click of the mouse, all the world’s biology and birding lore are available to anyone. A really nice digital camera costs but a fraction of the price of a pair of even mid-price binocs. Ditto for recording gear. Audacity and Xeno-Canto are free, eBird and iNaturalist available to all. Here at the ABA, we reach out through Facebook and Twitter, via blogs and podcasts, with our Birding News aggregator, and in other ways. If you are “bird curious” and have internet access, you will find your way to the ABA and thence to birding, pretty much guaranteed.

Yet there remain “some who live without wild things.” Why is that? If you’ll pardon my saying so, I think it’s partly because of us, those very ones who cannot live without wild things. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Kenn Kaufman, writing with his trademark mix of insight and disarming simplicity:

“[B]irders in general are incredibly welcoming and helpful to newcomers. But sometimes our best intentions misfire. We’ll take a group of beginners out, and we’ll be obsessed with showing them something “good,” when they’d be thrilled with a decent look at a flicker, or a jay, or a beautiful Red-winged Blackbird. We pass those by as unimportant and finally get the people zeroed in on a Clay-colored Sparrow or something, and they’re thinking ‘Huh?’ And then they don’t go on a second field trip.

“Sure, in that example, one person in the group will get turned on by that Clay-colored Sparrow, and that one person will go on to be come a serious birder, and we’ll be under the illusion that we’ve succeeded. But I’m more concerned about the others, the ones who don’t come back. It’s easy to fall into this pattern of thinking that a beginner is someone who isn’t an expert yet—y’know, Jon Dunn at the age of ten. But the vast majority of beginners will always be beginners. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We really don’t need any more people who can identify third-winter Thayer’s Gulls. We need a lot more people who have some appreciation of birdlife and who will act on it—by supporting habitat protection, buying shade-grown coffee, planting native plants, laying off the pesticides. We need millions of perpetual beginners who will do these things. If you drive a way a dozen such people by your efforts to create one ‘serious’ birder, you might as well be shooting hawks and cutting down old-growth forest.”

Kaufman penned those words in 2007, an eternity ago in the eyes of someone like my old friend Barbara. Facebook was in its infancy at the time, and eBird was just beginning to catch on. Digiscoping was all the rage, CDs and DVDs were still in wide use, and nobody had ever heard of an app or podcast.

These folks contributed in diverse ways to the scientific content of a recent state ornithological society meeting. Are they a mix of beginner, intermediate, and expert birders? Or does that question miss the point altogether?

I agree with Kaufman that “sometimes our best intentions misfire.” That hasn’t changed. But I think something else has changed: I think the age-old distinction between beginner and expert, between John Q. Public and Jon Dunn, is beginning to blur. Increasingly these days I’m struck by the sophistication and skillsets of people we still reflexively regard as “beginners.” It makes sense: More than ever before, we have access to shared resources for learning about birds and nature.

When it comes to butterflies, I’m one of Kaufman’s “perpetual beginners”—but with a twist. Ten years ago, I was an ignoramus. Today, I have access to amazing internet resources like Singing Insects of North America and Arthropods Colorado; I have a camera (for butterflies) and recording gear (for crickets and katydids); and I have direct access to the professional entomologists and serious amateurs who kindly respond to my every inquiry.

 

Much has been written, most of it direly, about the democratization of knowledge in the digital age; cf. American politics. Fair enough. But I’m more sanguine about the rise of the machines as it applies to birding in particular and nature study in general. Here’s the deal: A mere 10 years ago at a state ornithological society meeting, we would have convened and then adjourned, end of story. Today, though, we’re all connected. Our time together at the Carpenter Ranch is over, but we’re Facebook friends now; we follow each other on Twitter; we’ve shared eBird checklists. And in regard to eBird checklists, I note that they were compiled by the newest recruits to birding. The best photos and audio were obtained by folks who, half a human generation ago, wouldn’t have found their way to birding.

Kenn Kaufman, in his remarks from a decade ago, sounded the alarm about all the folks who “don’t go on a second field trip.” It’s still a problem, but it’s not as bad as it used to be. Thanks to birding and nature ambassadors like, well, Kenn Kaufman, I think we’re doing a better job than ever before of recruiting and retaining the sorts of persons we used to refer to as “beginners.”

I’ve been around long enough that I’ve been exposed to what an old birding friend and mentor, Jack Solomon, refers to as the G.O.D Theorem, the wrong-headed notion that everything was better in the good old days, or, with a more contemporary flourish, the conviction that we might Make Birding Great Again.

Folks, it ain’t gonna happen. The toothpaste has left the barn, or however the saying goes. I just can’t imagine birding without eBird and iNaturalist, without apps and podcasts, without cameras and recorders, and so much more. Sure, the technology will change; the way things are going, SnapChat and Instagram may seem as quaint in 2027 as DVDs and flip phones seem to us today. But you see what I’m saying, yes? We’re not going back.

These ancient hills overlook the Carpenter Ranch—where we rediscovered the eternal truth that “only change is changeless.” Photo by © Ted Floyd.

There’s something else. Even if we could turn back the clock, would we really want to? To be sure, we face challenges in this day and age. I thought about that during my time at the Carpenter Ranch—as I walked along county roads slickened with magnesium chloride, as I stood in line with the oilfield workers at the convenience store, and as I listened to young researchers describe their work on the effects of climate change on bird populations. But I was also struck by a sense of togetherness, of community, of a shared commitment to getting it right.

The keynote speaker at our convention, Sheri Williamson, ended her scintillating presentation with six little words I suspect you’ve heard before: “We’re all in this thing together.” Don’t be fooled by the folksy, friendly rhetoric. There’s great drama in what Williamson is saying. Old barriers—between “beginner” and “expert,” between “birder” and “non-birder,” between “us” and “them”—are breaking down. An old way of seeing the world has been deposed.

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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

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