American Birding Podcast



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.