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?