Birding the Future Blog

New Release: Playlists

On September 27, 2013, in Uncategorized, by Phil Mitchell
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Here at Larkwire Central we get a lot of requests from users for new features and more sounds (“chip notes, pretty please!”), but by far the single most requested feature is easier customization. You love having 479 species (and over 700 different songs and calls!) at your fingertips but want to focus on just a subset for now.

List of playlists

Well, before now it was possible (by going group to group and selecting each species), but it wasn’t ideal. And if you wanted a different subset, you’d have to discard your first one.

Playlists To The Rescue

Playlists fix all that. With playlists, you can define any subset of the species in your account and then play the game with just that subset. Have as many different playlists as you want and switch between them easily.

For example, you might create a playlist of your local species to focus on first, and then another one of northeast migrants to prep for your Point Pelee trip next year.

The tools for creating and editing playlists are in Larkwire’s “Search” section. Once you have defined some playlists, you can switch them on and off from your “Settings” page.

In addition to playlists, this new release has a handful of smaller tweaks, bug fixes and improvements. We love hearing from you and rely on your feedback to guide Larkwire’s developement. Let us know how we’re doing!

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The 7 + 3 Pleasures of Birding

On August 30, 2013, in Uncategorized, by Phil Mitchell
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From the film, The Central Park Effect

Finally got to see the Central Park Effect birding documentary. It was great to hear about Starr Saphir and the Central Park migrant trap in NYC! One of the things from the movie that stuck with me the most was Chris Cooper’s list of the seven pleasures of birding (via Marie Winn’s blog):

  1. The beauty of the birds
  2. The beauty of being in a natural setting
  3. The joys of hunting, without the bloodshed
  4. The joy of collecting (in that the practice of keeping lists — life lists, day lists, etc.– appeals to the same impulse as, say, stamp collecting)
  5. The joy of puzzle-solving (in making those tough identifications)
  6. The pleasure of scientific discovery (new observations about behavior, etc.)
  7. The Unicorn Effect–After you’ve been birding for even a little while, there are birds you’ve heard of or seen in books that capture your imagination, but you’ve never seen for yourself…and then one day, there it is in front of you, as if some mythical creature has stepped out of a storybook and come to life. There’s no thrill quite like it.

But it got me to thinking that there must be at least a few more pleasures that relate specifically to birding by ear. Here’s my first take on the pleasures of birding by ear:

  1. The beauty and incredible variety of sounds
  2. The thrill of seeing the invisible — knowing what’s out there, even in pitch dark;
  3. The fascination of hearing birds converse;
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Bird Songs Evolve With Habitat Changes

On July 29, 2013, in Uncategorized, by Phil Mitchell
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Science Daily reports a beautiful piece of research about shifts in White-crowned Sparrow songs as habitat has changed. Elizabeth Derryberry (now at LSU) compared recent recordings of male songs with songs from the same location from the 1970′s. At that time, the land had been cleared. Males’ songs (specifically, the trill portion) were generally faster and higher back then.

Photo copyright: Brian E. Small

Derryberry argues that the males shifted to slower, lower-pitched songs which carry better through the dense foliage that now occupies the area. Confirming this idea, she was able to find one location where the foliage had not been allowed to return, and that population also had not slowed and lowered their songs.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen quite a few studies of environmental effects on bird songs. The effects are generally quite significant, helping us understand the extraordinary variability we face in learning bird songs and perhaps giving us just a bit of humility about the habitat changes we continue to impose across the planet.

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Nature and Movies (Epic movie review)

On June 30, 2013, in Uncategorized, by Phil Mitchell
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We just saw Epic, the animated feature film from Blue Sky Studios. The nature animation is absolutely stunning. If you’ve ever wanted to see a hummingbird or a swallow from the perspective of a tiny person sitting on one’s back, this movie delivers that experience with a verve that will bring a smile to your face. Although the plot packs some cliches, on the whole the movie is filled with richly detailed moments that could only have been created by artists with a deep love of nature.

As a conservationist, I watch movies in this vein (Legends of the Guardians, Avatar, Oz the Magnificent, Fantastic Mr. Fox, etc.) with a bittersweet enjoyment. Even as our society produces beautifully realized nature art, it fails to value it enough to preserve it.

I ask myself whether such art leads to more awareness and care for nature or is simply a substitute for it (nature porn?). I don’t know the answer.

Every Spring we like to participate in the Seattle Foundation’s GiveBIG day. It’s a one-day event where the foundation provides matching funds to give a little fundraising boost to local non-profits. It’s a great way for us to get a little bit more bang for the royalties we pay to the planet.

This year, we received a beautiful GiveBIG appeal from one of the primary recipients of our royalties: the Alliance for Tompotika Conservation (AlTo). It’s possibly the best fundraising appeal that I’ve ever read—which is why I’m reposting it here, verbatim. It’s too late for you to participate in GiveBIG, but it’s certainly not too late to support AlTo.

Thanks, Marcy—for all your amazing work!

AlTo Update May 2013: Mother Turtles and You — A Covenant with the Future

by Marcy Summers

What will really strike you is her breathing.

If you are fortunate enough to witness a mother sea turtle laying her eggs on a Tompotika beach, as you sit quietly in the shadows by moonlight, there will be very little sound. After all, if you’re hearing anything much besides the mother turtle, then she will likely be scared off, and you’ll hear the other thing but not her. But if the timing and the peace is right and you yourself are very quiet and still while she hauls herself up from the waves, you may be blessed with witnessing one of the world’s most ancient and sacred rituals of giving: a mother sea turtle, giving everything she has to the future.

Copyright 2013 Alliance for Tompotika Conservation

From where you crouch, you hear the soft sound of the surf lapping at the shore, and you hear the rhythmic drag of her body across the sand as the mother turtle laboriously climbs the beach.

Her flippers seem very crude tools for walking and digging. They are shaped, after all, mostly for underwater power and agility — and for that they are brilliant. But with what looks like a pair of oars in front and rubber spatulas in back, you watch her slowly, awkwardly, dragging her great bulk up, heave by heave, past the high tide line, and you wonder how she can possibly manage it all.

But those hind flippers turn out to be deceptively nimble — and soon she is curving, cupping, and waving them with exquisite dexterity to dig, shape, and smooth a two-foot-deep, flask-shaped hole perfectly suited to the hundred-or-so eggs she is about to lay. You hear the sound of sand being thrown, as, flipperful by small flipperful, she prepares the nest for her eggs.

But it is her breath that governs everything else: the turtle, the digging, and you. If you were in a city at night, on hearing this sound you’d no doubt turn tail and run, but here, it simply makes you freeze and hold yours. Her breath is deep and long and startlingly loud. It is as if something massive and determined had a snorkel right up next to your ear. Crouching there, you hear one long, loud breath, then another. The sound of thrown sand. Long, loud breath.

Copyright 2013 Alliance for Tompotika Conservation

It is a slow, painstaking process, as the mother turtle prepares her gift, her legacy to the future. And as you witness it, you are swept up in what is happening: a ritual of giving that has occurred, just like this, for over 100 million years. Each long loud mother-turtle breath seems to draw you back across time and connect you to the past, to 100 million years and billions of mother sea turtles. Each one of those billions of mothers, slowly and with great effort, has hauled herself up across the beach to keep her covenant with 100 million years of life on Earth.

She gives absolutely everything she has. She has no house, no garden, no food in cans on a shelf, no social security, no estate plans. For her, her legacy for herself and her kind depends entirely on what she can give right now, and she does not hold back, but gives it all.

Long, loud breath. This turtle, this moment has been repeated for nigh on eternity, and as a witness, you are part of it too. Long, loud breath. What she needs now, you realize, is our help. Our help to ensure that her covenant is not just with the past, but with the future as well. For in these times, on our watch, the numbers of her kind are dwindling, dwindling — coming perilously close to none at all. Due to human activities, this female before you is one of the last of her kind, and whether or not her children will be back in 20 years to keep the circle unbroken is as yet up in the air. It may in fact depend on what AlTo can do today.

The mother turtle gives all she has, and she needs us to give as well.

Sometimes, timing is critical, and, what seems a small action in a 100-million-year sweep of history can nevertheless make a big difference. Please, make that action yours. This coming Wednesday, May 15, you can make a gift to AlTo through Seattle Foundation’s Give BIG event, and that gift will be “stretched” with additional funds from the Foundation. From midnight to midnight on May 15, please go here and make an online donation. Don’t let 100 million years end now.

Long, loud thank you.

You can still donate to the Alliance for Tompotika Conservation.

Freeport Snowbirder contest winner

On April 2, 2013, in Uncategorized, by Phil Mitchell
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Every winter, Freeport Wild Birds (in Freeport, Maine) runs the funniest birding contest in the world, the Snowbirder Contest, where participants are judged not on their birding prowess, but on their willingness to show up! The colder it is, the more points you get. Congratulations to Frank Paul, one of this year’s winners! Frank braved sub-zero temp’s all winter and won our combo pack: Master Birder Landbirds and Waterbirds.

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How Bird Songs Change Over Time

On February 25, 2013, in Uncategorized, by Phil Mitchell
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Savannah Sparrow

Credit: Brian E. Small

A fascinating study out of the University of Guelph has documented changes over time in the songs of Savannah Sparrows. Studying 800 individual birds over the course of three decades, the researchers found that certain parts of the song did not change, but others were subject to strong pressures of cultural evolution. Some of these changes, particularly the shortening and lowering of the final trill, were strongly correlated with increased reproductive success, suggesting a cultural process of sexual selection.

For the most part, Savannah Sparrow males learn and sing only one primary song their entire lives. Young males learn their songs from their fathers, but also from their neighbors, and gravitate towards the more successful males. In this way, the dialects of the most desirable males tend to predominate. On Kent Island, at any rate, the sexiest song is one that ends with a low, short trill.

The full study can be downloaded here (PDF).

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The Geography of Bird Songs

On February 6, 2013, in Uncategorized, by Phil Mitchell
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In the latest Larkwire release, you may have noticed a subtle change: on the group comparison page, recordings are no longer presented in alphabetical order (AK to WY), but are now in geographical order, north to south and west to east (AK to FL).

Because so much of song variation is geographical, it makes sense to present the sound samples organized that way as well, even when there are no recognized subspecies. The only exception to this is when there are subspecies, we make sure that they’re grouped together regardless of geography.

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Distinguishing Subspecies Sounds

On January 22, 2013, in Uncategorized, by Phil Mitchell
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We just released an update to all Larkwire songpacks that includes a number of improvements, among them a more detailed indication of subspecies sounds. For example, below you can see each White-breasted Nuthatch recording is tagged by subspecies; and below that the same for Fox Sparrow.

I have to confess that when Michael O’Brien first approached me about having us add this information, I thought it would appeal only to the most elite earbirders. But I realize now that I was completely wrong. For anyone who’s trying to learn these sounds, having the subspecies marked out is invaluable. Here’s why.

One of the key challenges we face as learners is the variability of bird sounds. Trying to distinguish White-breasted Nuthatch from Red-breasted, for example, is made all the harder by the fact that White-breasted calls are so variable. You may master it for one recording, but then be completely baffled by the next.

The subspecies labels help us by giving us hooks to hang onto and also by helping us focus on one subset of sounds at a time. These are time-tested learning techniques that are invaluable when coping with variability.

In fact, they’re not limited to subspecies distinctions. In some places (e.g., Great Horned Owl, below), we’ve tagged sounds with gender. Again, by adding structure, we help you cope with variability. And besides, it’s just so fascinating!

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Wild Hope (Book review)

On December 18, 2012, in Uncategorized, by Phil Mitchell
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Andrew Balmford is a British conservation biologist who tackles big, urgent questions such as how to reconcile farms and wild nature, how much is biodiversity worth in economic terms, and how much would it cost if we really wanted to save nature? Now he’s written a wonderful book chronicling some major conservation success stories.

Such a book inevitably comes with a warning label: conservation success remains far outweighed by destruction. And yet … it’s hugely important that we celebrate and learn from these inspiring stories, including:

  • A national park in Assam (India) which has a highly effective anti-poaching program (incorporating both carrots and sticks);
  • The U.S. Safe Harbor Program, which removes the perverse incentives that sometimes have made the Endangered Species Act feared and hated by private landowners hosting protected species;
  • A national invasive species control program in South Africa which combines an anti-poverty public works program, critical watershed protection for farmers, and removal of invasive species threatening the nation’s fabulous biodiversity;
  • A rewilding program in the Netherlands, one of the most densely populated and domesticated landscapes on Earth;
  • Alcoa mining restoration program, in which a corporate giant demonstrates long-term commitment to good stewardship;
  • Marine Stewardship Council, the critical effort to create a sustainability standard for the ocean commons.

If you are passionate about biodiversity conservation, these stories will give you hope, inspiration and insight. All profits from the book benefit conservation organizations.

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