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.
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!
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):
- The beauty of the birds
- The beauty of being in a natural setting
- The joys of hunting, without the bloodshed
- 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)
- The joy of puzzle-solving (in making those tough identifications)
- The pleasure of scientific discovery (new observations about behavior, etc.)
- 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:
- The beauty and incredible variety of sounds
- The thrill of seeing the invisible — knowing what’s out there, even in pitch dark;
- The fascination of hearing birds converse;
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
I’ve always thought that nest parasitism (e.g., cuckoos laying eggs in other species’ nests) seemed particularly evil and wondered what defences species have evolved against this. An amazing study from Australia has just come out showing that Superb Fairy-Wren mothers basically teach their chicks a food password. If the nestlings don’t give the password, they aren’t fed! Presumably, nest parasites (such as cuckoos) haven’t evolved the ability to learn the password and therefore won’t succeed.
The mothers actually vocalize these special calls to their eggs and the study shows that the babies learn the calls before hatching. Once hatched, the chicks’ begging calls include the “password call” that the mother gave. Different mothers give different calls and the study shows that these variations are not genetic but learned. It would be very interesting to know more about the call variations used by the mothers.
The other thing that would be amazing to observe would be a nest in which both alien and native babies were present—in order to see whether mothers actually feed their own babies and ignore the others.
One of the fascinating challenges to creating a new Larkwire songpack is organizing the sounds into similarity groups. With landbirds, for instance, we have a group such as “Robin-like,” which includes tanagers, several vireos and other species whose songs are confusable with the song of American Robin.
With waterbirds, these groups don’t cross taxonomic families quite as much. Grebes are mostly grouped with grebes, rails with rails, herons with herons, and so forth. But one of the groups that I find fascinating is “Wing sounds,” which includes several ducks and swans. Differences in pitch and quality give very distinct clues to species identity. Here are a few samples:
Mute Swan wing sound
Trumpeter Swan wing sound
Tundra Swan wing sound
Northern Shoveler wing sound
Common Goldeneye wing sound
Surf Scoter wing sound
We’ve been hard at work on our Larkwire waterbirds songpack and it’s coming together nicely. Despite the fact that none of these species are “songbirds,” there’s wonderful variety and beauty in the sounds that they make.
There’s the strange harrumphing of the Long-tailed Duck:
Of course, the wailing of the Common Loon:
And how about the haunting, whistling trill of the Long-billed Curlew:
Over on the ABA blog, Ted Floyd has nice series about documenting rarities with field recordings.
Ted shows that you don’t need an expensive rig to capture audio snapshots of bird sounds. As with photos, the pros will haul around heavy, expensive equipment and get top quality; but in the digital age, anyone can capture remarkably good audio. (In part 2, he discusses audio editing on the cheap, which will make your recordings even better.)
The key point is not just how easy it is, but that (as with birding in general), we so often hear birds rather than see them. For documenting rarities, or just sending out a “twitpic” of your latest find, recording the bird songs and calls that you’re hearing is becoming another regular part of birding.