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Listening and Hearing

A review by Peter Kennerley

The Sound Approach to Birding: A Guide to Understanding Bird Sound, by Mark Constantine and The Sound Approach

Sound Approach, 2014

192 pages and ca. 200 audio tracks, $23.99—eBook

We birders rely primarily on vision, and most of our encounters with birds are by sight. But bird sounds are all around us.

ABA rules let us add those “heard birds” to our lists, but even so, some birders claim they don’t even “do” sounds.

Of course we recognize the yard birds we hear every day. Most birders are also familiar with the songs and calls of the commoner species in our regular birding haunts, and a minority are able to identify the songs and calls of almost any species they come across.

How has that last group birders attained such a high skill level of skill? Well, there is no shortcut. It is just practice, and lots of it.

Expert guidance can make it a great deal easier, though. The Sound Approach team of Mark Constantine, Arnoud van den Berg, and Magnus Robb have created a series of inspiring books that seek to bridge the divide between bird sounds and visual birding. The first in the series, The Sound Approach to Birding, was published in hardcover with two CDs in 2006, and nearly a decade later, that book—newly available on iTunes—remains at the cutting edge of aural bird identification. Three more volumes have since appeared: Birding from the Hip (2009), Petrels Night and Day (2008), Catching the Bug (2012; also available as an eBook), and Undiscovered Owls (2015). More are in the pipeline.

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Each of these books takes listeners into a world of bird sounds and discovery. But before you read the newer titles, be sure to start at the beginning, with The Sound Approach to Birding.

Once in a while, a book appears that fundamentally changes the way we think about birding. The Sound Approach is that kind of book.

Almost all traditional field guides include a brief description of a song or call. But the sequence of a few letters on a page can never convey the complexity of a bird sound. Some guides suggest mnemonics for recalling a particular song. But how can that accommodate the myriad of languages and pronunciations in the birding community?

The Sound Approach encourages us to dispense with the distracting, often misleading baggage that comes with field guides, and engages with readers to interpret bird sounds in a new way. Beginners might be slightly intimidated, but no need: this guide takes listeners at every level of experience on a voyage of audio discovery that will leave any of us a better birder.

It is an ambitious undertaking, one carried out with the help of almost 200 sound tracks and numerous sonograms. Audio jargon is kept to a minimum here, but just as a visual guide use technical terms to describe plumage features, this guide teaches us to apply terms such as pitch, frequency, timbre, modulation, harmonics, and tempo to describe sounds. Once we understand how to use the terms, we have a vocabulary to discuss, analyze, interpret, and no doubt argue about the sounds we hear. We learn that sounds can be used to age and sex birds, and that some features of song, mimicry, and dialect can influence taxonomy.

That’s plenty of material for debate right there.

From the very beginning, the reader interacts with this book, listening to sound tracks while reading the text and interpreting the sonograms. The sonograms have been prepared with great care, and remain among the best and the most easily understood I have seen; clearly labeled and annotated, each corresponds to a recording on the accompanying CDs.

Comparison is the key to understanding sounds, and throughout the book and recordings, species pairs and similar-sounding species are treated one after the other or compared on the same track. For example, there are explicit comparisons of the flight vocalizations of the four species of Pluvialis plover, the calls of Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitchers, and the long calls of Common and Arctic Terns.

The first two of the ten text chapters introduce the readers to the technical terms required to fully appreciate what is to follow, and how the concepts those terms describe come together in songs and calls. This is followed by a chapter about sound recording equipment and techniques, including editing to remove or add sounds to to enhance the final track. This chapter also offers an instructive discussion of environmental effects on our perception of avian sound.

The remaining chapters take listeners on a journey around much of Europe and some of North America, with tales and anecdotes of the species and adventures the Sound Approach team encountered along the way.

The first set of recordings explores the often difficult distinction between a song and a call, with an eye-opening discussion of how one type of vocalization can blend into the other. We learn that calls and songs can continue to develop over a bird’s entire lifespan, and that the calls of a single individual can vary with the circumstances. Did you know, for example, that a mobbing Black-capped Chickadee calibrates the number and length of its dee notes to the level of danger posed by a potential predator?

The beautiful vocalizations of two of the world’s finest singers, the Blackcap and the Common Nightingale, illustrate the discussion of sub-song and plastic song, phenomena that will be new to some readers. Both are subdued variants of territorial song, but while sub-song is often given from deep cover and lacks the “passion” of that song (sometimes to the extent that it is unrecognizable to human ears), plastic song mixes sub-song with phrases clearly borrowed from the songster’s full territorial song. The nightingale examples neatly demonstrate the progression from scratchy sub-song through plastic song to the beautifully formed, fully crystallized nocturnal territorial song.

I especially enjoyed the tracks from the second CD, which include recordings of some of the birds most difficult to identify by plumage or by voice. There is a fascinating chapter on Red Crossbill calls; it turns out that the situation in the Old World is no less complicated than in North America. Instead of assigning each call type a letter, Constantine and his team give them evocative names, including Phantom, Scarce, Glip, Parakeet, and Wandering. When the calls are listened to one after the other, the differences are striking—but just try to describe them in words that others can understand; good recordings like those provided here are essential. The songs, excitement notes, and flight calls of North American White-winged Crossbills are also compared with those of Two-barred Crossbills in Europe. Here too, the differences are immediately apparent, and combined with morphological distinctions, they support the case made here for treating the two as separate species.

It is difficult to stop enthusing about the secrets revealed in this fascinating book. The vocal differences between the Common Moorhen in Europe and the Common Gallinule in the Americas suddenly become clear; The Sound Approach offers a powerful demonstration of why those taxa were split.

Birders on the lookout for rarities in Alaska (and very hopeful observers in eastern North America, too) will relish the account of the discovery of a distinctive vocalization of the “Northern” Eurasian Bullfinch. During a recent bullfinch incursion into western Europe, birders suddenly became aware of this new call, and there was considerable discussion about the likely origin of the invaders, with some speculating on western Russia and others arguing for sites much farther east. In fact, recordings by the Sound Approach team revealed that birds from the same population had occurred regularly even before that invasion—and that the mysterious call was the typical (and diagnostic) call of Scandinavian birds. How had it been overlooked so long?

Sometimes we listen, but we do not hear.

The style of the book is chatty, informal and perhaps a bit too familiar, but it gets its points across in ways that are easily understood. If I had to find fault, my only quibble is that the landscape format used for the printed books makes it impossible to hold them open with one hand.

In 2014, though, The Sound Approach to Birding became available on iTunes as an interactive eBook—only for Apple users, and optimized for the iPad. Readers of this electronic version can visualize sounds with eSonogram technology, making the comparison of sounds and sonograms easy and instantaneous.

The Sound Approach to Birding is an inspiration, and no short review can really do it justice. This is a book to dip into for answers, or to read from cover to cover. There is so much that is new here, and I cannot recommend it too highly. I think the new ebook format is the future for this series, and hope to see the other volumes made available that way soon; but whichever your preference, listen, learn, and enjoy.

Peter Kennerley

– Peter Kennerley can usually be found surveying coastal sites or banding migrants in Suffolk, England. Otherwise, he is likely to be at his keyboard working on the monthly journal British Birds, where he is Assistant Editor. He leads birding groups for Limosa throughout Europe and North America, although his fondness for Asia and its birds sees him returning to that continent year after year.

Recommended citation:

Kennerley, P. 2015. Listening and Hearing [a review of The Sound Approach to Birding, by Mark Constantine and the Sound Approach]. Birding 47 (2): 65-66.

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