I’ve been social-distancing lately, leaving the house only when I run out of bacon. I keep a long list of chores I plan to do whenever I get the time, and suddenly, I have loads of time.
All was going well until a new project abruptly dropped into my lap. It started when this email landed in my inbox: “Maine Audubon is looking for skilled birders (volunteers) to help identify birds recorded with song meters last spring as part of our Forestry for Maine Birds Program. Do you ‘bird by ear’ and have some time to spare? You can listen to recordings from your own home.”
Oh, that is so me! I’ve been birding by ear for so long, my brain is now hard-wired. I can’t help myself. If a bird makes a sound, my brain must identify it, even if it’s a background sound in a Netflix movie. Think I’m kidding? At minute 2:08 of the fourth episode of The Witcher on Netflix, that’s a Swainson’s thrush singing in the background. I was full of confidence as I hastened to volunteer.
My confidence was short-lived. One of the things I love about birding is that I am constantly learning new ways for this hobby to embarrass me.
Forestry for Maine Birds is a collaborative approach that integrates bird conservation with forest management. Many Maine bird species are in serious decline, and many landowners wish to manage their forests without contributing further to that decline. Maine Audubon biologists help landowners and foresters identify threatened species on their woodlots so they can manage their forests both for better harvests and habitat improvement.
Fortunately, from mid-May until late June, the birds announce themselves. Wildlife biologists simply place microphones out in the woods to record the dawn chorus. The song meter automatically turns on a half hour before sunrise and continues recording for 150 minutes, during the time when birds are making the most noise. Later, volunteer experts can listen to the recordings and identify every species heard. For me, that’s easy enough. What could possibly go wrong?
Vireos. These monitors are sensitive; they can pick up quiet bird songs at a distance. So what happens when a loud bird decides that his favorite singing spot is next to the microphone? During a recording made on a land trust property in Vienna on June 16 of last year, a red-eyed vireo woke up before dawn and began singing at 23 minutes into the tape. For the next two hours, he never shut up. Not once. If I wanted to identify another bird, I would have to listen for it over his ear-piercing, unrelenting aria.
It wasn’t just vireos. A scarlet tanager obliterated the first half-hour of that same recording, singing incessantly. On a recording made at a preserve in Bath on May 16 last year, it was a tufted titmouse that made it hard to hear other birds. When he got tired, a hermit thrush took over. When you’re walking in the woods, you can hear quiet birds by just walking away from the loud ones, or turning your head, or cocking your ears. You don’t have those luxuries with a recording from a stationary microphone.
Worse, there are no visual clues. Pine warblers and chipping sparrows both trill, but not usually from the same location. The warblers generally stay up high in pines. The sparrows are often on lower branches of deciduous trees. A quick glance at the trees can aid identification, but there’s no glance option on a recording.
Also, many birds make a variety of noises. The song of an ovenbird is easy — a loud “teacher, teacher, teacher.” Except, before dawn, they warble a set of musical notes that sound nothing like an ovenbird. A half-hour before sunrise, that was the first bird I heard on the Bath recording. These birds are obviously trying to trick me!
Despite the challenges, it was total fun to listen to five hours of spring from last year. It’ll be another few weeks before Maine’s woods get that noisy again, so now is a good time to get my ears tuned up. Yours, too. Step out on the porch. Common grackles and red-winged blackbirds are already raising a ruckus. The finches are warbling. This is the weekend song sparrows and American robins should start singing. Pine warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets and yellow-bellied sapsuckers will arrive and join the chorus over the next three weeks. Listen. You can actually hear spring arrive.