Thursday, 19 February 2009

Birding by sound?

On Tuesday morning I stopped off at Bookham Common for a 20 minute walk at 7.40 am on my way to work. It was a calm, windless morning with the sound of birds coming from all directions but would I actually see anything?

As I followed the path from the Tunnel car park through the woodland I heard Wren, Song Thrush, Blackbird, Great & Blue Tits, a Woodpecker drumming plus the strident call of a Nuthatch. A brief view through the trees of a Grey Heron probably returning to the heronry, 2 Stock Doves & Carrion Crow flew silently overhead. A scan of the tree tops behind the railway station produced NOTHING. As I returned to the car I thought I heard a Bullfinch.

On the drive into work I got to thinking (disastrous I know at my age) that it's that time of year again when I start to wonder whether I can remember the calls of those migrant visitors (warblers in particular) that will be arriving throughout the spring. I have never found it easy to listen to a long list of sound recordings on tape or CD and then store this information in my brain for prompt recall. My tactic has always been to go out into the 'field', listen and then try to locate the songster and match the sound to the 'face'. Generally this works but I often wonder what I have missed. It's a bit like "phishing", for me it’s a bit hit and miss!

A few of my memories of 'birding by sound alone':
Some people seem to have a natural aptitude for bird sounds - I particularly recall an autumn pre-breakfast walk in Mid-Wales with DC and in the space of 10 minutes he ID various calls of at least 15 species and we hadn't seen a thing - that's why he is a professional and I'm a mere amateur.

I distinctly remember the first time I heard the glorious sound of a Nightingale, singing on a warm humid evening, surrounded by biting insects, on Bookham Common just after the sun had set. (But not seen!)
The next occasion was a week later when I heard a Nightingale singing from within woodland at Bookham Common. I slowly followed the sound and eventually located the individual perched fairly low down but in the open next to a well used path. For the next 20 odd minutes I watched and listened as this male belted out his song and with an ancient hand held Dictaphone I recorded his song while at least two dog walkers quietly passed by and were presumably totally unaware of what I was doing. I used this recording for a few years to introduce others to the sound of Nightingale as it tends to be a species that few actually see. Regretfully the tape has long since disappeared but the memory is still strong.

During recent annual 'Dawn Chorus' walks at work the first hour is birding virtually in the dark and just using your ears to listen whilst trying not to bump into any of the 30 visitors who have come to witness this event as we head into the gardens. The problem is everyone wants to know which birds are making every single sound! My normal response is to suggest that they stand quietly for a few minutes and just listen thereby enjoying the growing additions to this orchestral feast of sound - this actually gives me time to get my brain in gear before attempting to identify all the relevant species. I'm sure I've made a few bloomers over the years but nobody seems to mind.

On previous annual camping holidays to Sandringham in Norfolk we would lie awake waiting for the local Tawny Owls to start talking to one another interspersed with their well known and often repeated 'kewick' shrills. Memories of my first birding trip abroad to Mallorca are directly linked to the daylight calls of the Hoopoe (a trisyllabic & repeated 'oop-oop-oop') and the nightly sonar-like 'tyuh' of the resident (Eurasian) Scops Owls which can be heard, I believe, up to a kilometre away.

A trip with friends to Stodmarsh in late January a few years ago when it was so foggy you couldn't see more than 10 metres in front of you and most of the water was totally frozen. The comment was uttered "what the hell are we doing here in these conditions"? Well I said "you'll just have to use your ears, I can hear Ducks somewhere out there" and reeled off a few specie names. Who was going to argue? Actually it turned out to be the best day for Water Rail as we counted no less than 15 individuals seen and a few more heard throughout the day AND a sighting of Bittern if somewhat hidden by the moving fog. So it wasn't all bad despite the conditions - You just have to adapt.

Finally on my arrival at work two 'honking' Greylag Geese flew overhead. As I headed across the car park I was greeted by the sounds and sight of Blue, Great & Long-tailed Tits plus Chaffinches feeding as they worked their way through the Alders. A pair of Great-spotted Woodpeckers alighted on a nearby tree and followed each other from perch to perch and then quietly flew away together while a Nuthatch called from the edge of Battleston Hill and the resident Robins and Song Thrushes were announcing their prowess from various song posts. The last sound was the squawking call of two Rose-ringed Parakeets as they flew into the gardens.

So what are your experiences of 'birding by sound' AND do you have any tips for improving your memory in order to identify both common and migrant species?


  1. I am admitedly very poorly skilled at birding by sound. I do have an iPod with birdJam software which includes pictures and the songs of all of the birds of eastern North America. It has been very helpful. I'm thinking it's time to start reviewing warblers for spring. I think they might be developing a birdJam for Europe.

  2. I really liked this post. A goal of mine this spring is to be able to add more of the migrant's songs to my auditory memory (but lately it seems to take me a lot longer to remember things, and I tend to forget them a lot more quickly--not good for memorizing migrant's songs!). I love stepping outside and within seconds recognizing all the singing birds.

  3. Great post! I have been trying to do some of this myself but have been thrown off due to the fact that the birds I am so used to hearing are now making different calls and songs now that spring is closer.

    I love it when I can identify a bird solely by its sound. I am not that good at it, but want improve that this year.

  4. I tend to learn the bird sounds the same way you described - match the song to the face. One of my favorite bird sounds at this time of the year is a big flock of godwits - they seem to be in constant conversation. Many of the other waders are silent until they are disturbed.

  5. I am not so great, unless it's a species I know well, but it's so fun to hear them and not see them and be full of the anticipation that you might!

  6. Greetings from across the pond! I found you from Red and the Peanut, and just in time, I see. Birding by ear is becoming an increasingly important tool in my bird ID toolbox. I was bit by the "song bug" a few springs ago when I heard the most beautiful bird sounds that had entered my ear, but I had no clue what on earth it was. After much trial and error on the Cornell Lab's All About Birds pages, I finally found my bird (Wood Thrush), and ever since then I've been trying to learn as many bird sounds as possible. I seem to have pretty decent auditory memory, but it does help to put a face to the voice, too. I have several bird song CDs, which I will have to bring out again soon, much like everyone else, to review all those warblers!

  7. Well "Earlybirders" it seems we are all in agreement - We love birdsong BUT we have to work at it using the various sources available to us. All I can say is "happy listening".

    Heather, welcome & thanks for joining the "Earlybirders" & I hope you find something helpful when you drop in. By the way your GBBC reports make interesting reading plus a good list of species. Regards Frank

  8. When I was making the change from rookie to advanced in Southern California, I found a diverse habitat and birded that every week for a year. I found that there were certain places that a particular bird or group would frequent. In a matter of a few weeks, I could hear them before I arrived to the spot. As the seasons passed, I built up the number of species that I could recognize.

    On our recent trip back to California, I heard a bird that I had not heard for 18 years…a Bewick’s wren.

  9. Thanks Steve, I think that is very good advice for everyone to follow.
    Well at least your memory banks are working!

  10. Hi Frank,
    I love "birding by ear" and am thankful that my hearing is still good enough to enjoy it. I have a couple of different CDs with birdsongs I'm likely to hear in this region. One of them includes mnemonics which seems to be quite helpful for me to remember (like the yellow-headed blackbird's call sounds like "don't you dare"). For me, memorization is best by repetition and I will listen to these bird call CDs over and over again and once I've got the ones learned that I hear most frequently, then I move on to learning some new ones--especially the summer sparrows and warblers which are only here and singing for a few short months.

  11. Hi Frank,
    My first time here and enjoying your birding posts. Although I am no expert I have a good grasp on the bird calls and songs that reside here on and near my property. I LOVE birding by sound. I've learned well from my peers (most of which are very good and one that I get out with on occasion, is a pro. He works with warblers and it's amazing what he knows.) I've learned in the field but also have a Peterson's Guide CD that is very helpful. It works just like a book on the computer but you can hear the bird as well. Just listening to what's out there really enhances your awareness all around you. It takes time but it is such a wonderful feeling when you hear a bird after months of winter and know what it is without having to refresh! I just love it!
    Great post!

  12. Hi RuthieJ - I agree, repetition works for me. Mnemonics is an excellent way of explaining sounds to others like a Song Thrush that usually repeats phrases 3 times & can sound like "That's me..that's me..That's me.

    Hi Eve & welcome to "The Early Birder". CD sound guides seem to be very popular but I agree they are no substitute for getting out & listening especially in the company of an expert. In Sept 2003 I visited Cape May & was amazed to see CMBO volunteers counting bird movement by sound early am in the dark! A great skill. Cheers Frank.


I hope you enjoyed your visit and I always appreciate your comments and feedback.


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