Evolution of a Bird Listener

On January 31, 2012, in Uncategorized, by Phil Mitchell

Brian Sullivan has a wonderful piece on the ABA blog about the different stages we go through as our birding skill develops. From “beginner” to “college” to “middle age” to “expert,” he describes an evolution from a state where everything is new and unknown through various degrees of knowledge.

One of the most interesting things Brian points out about this evolution (echoed in the blog comments) is that birders at the very highest level seem to get back to beginner’s mind. The familiar seems new again and “knowledge” stops getting in the way and becomes an aid to experiencing each bird as unique and fascinating. There’s nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know.”

It seems to me that nowhere is this truer than in learning bird sounds. In the field, some sounds may elude our ability to say what species uttered it. That’s okay. Because there’s so much more to listen for in bird talk than just Who was it?.

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Structured vs. Holistic Learning of Bird Sounds

On January 14, 2012, in Uncategorized, by Phil Mitchell

We’ve been having a discussion lately about the differences between learning bird sounds holistically (i.e., in the field while birding, in their full behavioral context) versus learning them in Larkwire’s highly structured, super-efficient but artificial context.

The discussion basically goes like this:

Me: “You’d have to be crazy not to use Larkwire.”
Michael: “But we do want people to still go outside, don’t we?”
Me: “Yes, I guess so.”

Of course, the truth is that these two approaches are totally complementary. A good analogy is with learning a foreign language. Studying language recordings is no substitute for being immersed in real conversation; but for most people full immersion is just too hard if they haven’t done some serious preparation first.

Varied Thrush (Credit: Brian E. Small)

I experienced a nice example of holistic learning recently at a favorite patch. I was watching a beautiful male Varied Thrush, who had come in much closer than usual (about 20 feet away). It dawned on me that he was giving a very low chup sound, about every 4-5 sec. I’d never heard this call before and it took me a while to be sure that it was even coming from him. Interesting!

The next thing I knew, another bird was answering him from shrubs just to my left. A much harder, faster chucking sound. At first I thought this might be the female (whom I’d seen a few minutes earlier). Silly me. It turned out to be a Pacific Wren.

A moment later, a Bewick’s Wren started in off to my right with its unmistakeable hissy shree notes. Finally I figured it out…it was all about me! The birds were all giving alarm notes to announce my presence. A Spotted Towhee even came over to sit on the fence and have a look. I felt so … observed.

For me, there are a couple of lessons here. First, there’s no substitute for the richness of full immersion. I wasn’t just ID’ing sounds, I was caught in the crossfire of conversation!

Secondly, I know from experience that it’s going to be hard for me to remember those alarm notes. I don’t hear them very often (except for the Bewick’s), and I’m a slow learner. That’s where Larkwire is indispensable. Now, if only we had a songpack of alarm notes! (Uh, Mark …?)

But there’s something even more important, and that’s awareness. A few years ago, honestly, I might not even have paid attention to these sounds. I wasn’t birding by ear then. But once you start, even if you know only a few sounds, your ears wake up. You start listening to everything and you wonder how you could ever have not.

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Learning about Green Birding…

On January 9, 2012, in Uncategorized, by Phil Mitchell

I was inspired by North Coast Diaries’ Walkabout post to learn a little more about Green Birding, which is generally defined as birding without producing carbon emissions, though of course sustainability encompasses much more than just transportation.

It’s wonderful to know about the many birders who’ve embraced the idea – a quick look turns up Green Birding resources in Oregon, Wisconsin, California, and of course, Quebec, which seems to be the mother of Bigby (Big Green Big Year), and many other places as well.

My favorite article—unfortunately behind a paywall—is Diana Doyle’s Big Green Birding Challenge article in Birdwatching Daily (August 2010). She recounts an amazing year of haunting local patches by foot and bike, amassing a very impressive 210 species while based in Minneapolis, MN!

Ted Floyd at the ABA blog ties this all back into Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic, the bedrock of my personal convictions about conservation. Birding locally isn’t something you do to earn a halo; it’s what you do when you’re part of a local community.

Never miss a chance to quote Aldo:

“When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man[.]“

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