Friday, April 11, 2014

Birding by Ear



I doubt I have to convince many of you that paying attention to bird voices enhances your overall birding experience. Listening to birds and learning their songs does several things for you: it increases your awareness of birds and the diversity of sounds they make, and gives you a better understanding of their world and how they interact with it. Best of all, it impresses the heck out of your friends. Friends who already think you're a little too birdnerdy (but birds are so hip right now!) will be utterly convinced of this once you interrupt a conversation with, "Hey, I think I just heard a common nighthawk *peent* overhead!" (This happened to me in southeast Portland, not an everyday bird in those parts.)

But inside they're jealous, completely green with envy, and secretly covet your seemingly omniscient ability.

They think, "How can I get that superpower?"

Truly, it's simple. I say that now, after being at it for more than twenty years, but I'm pretty sure it's still simple.

First of all, you must be patient with yourself. You did not learn to walk, talk, do calculus, or write a book as soon as the urge hit you. You tried, failed, tried again, practiced, practiced, practiced, and here you are: living proof that those things and more can be achieved with time, patience, and practice.

Second of all, do you have ears? If yes, then use them! How did I learn birdsong? Oh yeah, it was that one app they had back in the late '80s called Being Outside. I kid, but really it was being outside for extended periods of time, listening to songs then tracking down the singer, that gave me a leg up. If you have just thirty minutes a day to listen, you can gets lots of practice time in.


OK, so now you're feeling all gooey and warm and fuzzy about all the things listening to birds can do for you and how with just thirty minutes to an hour a day you can easily devote your entire spring to mastering the art of birding by ear. Yes, I Can! And I encourage you to dive right in!

Open your ears and practice. Every time you walk to the car, the store, the mailbox, you should picture your ears as giant deer ears, rotating and gathering sound from all points. Start to filter out the cars, the planes, the barking dog, and mentally turn your ears toward that tree that always has birds in it, or to your feeder that the finches always go to. Chances are those birds are chatting about something and you can listen in. Find them, look at them, watch them sing. The pursuit of the singer helps cement the song in your mind.

Reinforce with recordings. We are lucky to have so many recordings at our fingertips, whether on a CD, online at Cornell's web site, or right in the palm of our hand in a birding app like iBird or Sibley. Reading about the song, looking at a photo of the bird while listening to it sing, taking quizzes on songs are all good tools for reinforcement. Does that make the learning process any easier or faster? It certainly helps. I treasure my recordings and still pop a CD into the player to keep on learning. That being said, no amount of tech can substitute for yes, that's right, you guessed it...Being Outside.


Take a class or go on a guided birdwalk. If you have someone right there who's telling you what you're listening to, the learning curve is suddenly not so treacherous. I teach three versions of Birding By Ear every spring. The Resident Birds class starts tonight, Migrant Birds starts in May, and Nesting Birds starts in June. Good for me, bad for you: all sessions are full. But if you're in the Portland area do check out the spring morning birdsong walks, linked above. On more generic birdwalks, most leaders have at least some familiarity with local bird sounds and are happy to point them out. And there may be other participants who really know their sounds and can help you out.

Birding can be a social pursuit or a solitary one. If you start out in a group, learning from a teacher and each other, you should also strike out on your own to test your listening skills when not distracted by people noises. Likewise solitary birders might pick up tips from a group. Birds are more likely to settle down and accept your presence when you are alone, and you might finally track down that one singer that's been driving you nuts. I encourage you to slow down, sit down, and listen. The birds will be singing for you all spring!






Friday, March 7, 2014

Flashback Friday

When I introduce myself to a new session of beginning birders, I refer to the summer of 1987 as "the summer that changed my life." I was attending Lewis & Clark College, majoring in biology, and had mostly been interested in studying whales prior to arriving in Portland and finding that maybe that wasn't the best use of my time at a liberal arts college not located next to the ocean. One of my bio profs told us about summer internships available at California's Point Reyes Bird Observatory (now known as Point Blue) just north of San Francisco. Sure, I knew that place! I grew up in Berkeley, about an hour south, and had spent lots of time at Point Reyes as a child. I applied and for some reason they accepted me, even though I could barely tell a sparrow from an eagle.

I had two jobs during my stay at the Palomarin Field Station.One was to run the mist-net system that was spread over several acres. We hoisted the 14 nearly-invisible mist nets like a ship's sails every morning, checked on them every 30 minutes, untangled caught birds and brought them back to the lab for weighing, measuring, and most importantly, banding. The final step was to clasp a numbered metal ring around the bird's leg (left or right, I can't recall). This way, if the bird was recaptured, its trail could be followed through its unique band number. Same if the bird was found dead. All the North American banding data is stored at the Bird Banding Lab at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. If you find a band you can report it online and find out about the bird's history. Why is this important information? Banding data helps us understand migration patterns and timing, distribution and success of breeding birds, as well as how long birds can live. The oldest known Laysan Albatross, Wisdom, was banded as an adult 63 years ago!

My other job was to survey Grid 2, the area pictured above. The bird observatory has run a breeding bird survey program here, and on 3 other grids, since 1966 and has amassed an extraordinary amount of information about breeding birds of the area. Every morning I traversed the grid, which was thick with dense coyote brush and chaparral, watched for target species singing from perches, and mapped their color bands and location. Any time a target species, like a Song Sparrow, was mist-netted, it was given a unique color band sequence so we could ID it as an individual. Thus, my birds had "names" like MRG/S meaning on its left leg was a Mauve, a Red and a Green plastic band and on its right was a silver metal band. The map pictured is the result of my logging the singing perches of individual males as they patrolled their patches defending them from rivals. G2-1 belongs to MRG/S while G2-11 belongs to S/YYO. Think about this the next time you're walking through Song Sparrow territory and realize how closely they bump up to each other and even overlap.
And finally, here is yours truly at the tender age of 19 holding her first Sharp-shinned Hawk. Mist-netting wasn't always about small birds - we got this guy, a juvenile Saw-whet Owl, and even a bat. Banding birds gives you a tremendous appreciation for the variation in birds' personalities. Some were shy, some were downright badass and most were all smaller than my fist.

Before the summer of 1987, I couldn't tell you what a Song Sparrow or Wrentit sounded like but suddenly it was my job to track them by their songs! I saw and handled so many birds that summer, found a Wrentit nest on my birthday, learned all those birdsongs by heart, and learned a ton about communal dorm living. I returned to school, hung out with birders who knew far more than I did, and finally set aside my dream of studying whales in favor of these far more accessible birds. If you ever get a chance to band birds or watch it being done, DO IT! There is no place like Palomarin in Oregon, but California is just down the road - check it out this summer when the Wrentits are be-bopping away and the White-crowned Sparrow's song echoes through the fog.


Friday, February 28, 2014

Laura Still Goes Birding

My last post was December 20, 2010. I created this blog in 2007 as a way to show my photos from Antarctica, but once those were finished it became a way to share my birding trips in the northern hemisphere. Not that this was an original idea by any means, but my friends and family enjoyed it and I could toss out a few birding tips, too.

Then I met my Birding Associate. We began birding together and I blogged about our trips around the state. But eventually I felt like the blog had become a log of my romance, not of my birding. I slowed on taking photos, I didn't feel inspired, I just wanted to read blogs that weren't mine that had way better photos.

So I stopped. And got a dog. And got married. And got another dog. And quit my day job to become a copy editor, Yes, I really did.

My blogger friends have continued taking photos, posting, updating, and occasionally razzing me about my lack of posts. I even ran into one of my "fans" at a local refuge who asked me when I'd be posting again! So I am taking a shot at re-entering the blog world, to see if I can offer something unique, to reconnect with the virtual world, and to tap my creative side.

I hope you'll welcome me back! If you have any suggestions for blog posts I'd love to hear them. With my expanded class offerings at Audubon, I thought I could tie blogging and teaching somehow but I'm not sure how yet...but it'll happen!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Random Birds

I haven't posted in many months, partly because I haven't had what I'd call a blogworthy adventure and partly because my photos are just so abysmal. I've been reading two blogs by birders who have really big lenses and a lot of luck....it's enough to give a girl a complex! But this heron at Ridgefield NWR yesterday gave me a good show - stared and stared at the potential vole meal in the grasses then BANG! went for it. Missed....and casually walked away, on to the next spot where perhaps the voles had not yet caught on.




I like the Red-tail below because it emulates Monty Python's Flying Circus but with a hawk. Dark head, light chest, dark belly band and lighter below.


Finally, here is a nifty new bird, a Red-breasted Sapsucker, that glided into the yard, clung to the chimney and had a look around. Took off for parts unknown and, to my knowledge, has not been back. Wish it had come back for the November yard list contest! Maybe I would have had a fighting chance!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Central Oregon Part 3

After a nice quiet night at the Cabin Lake campground we spent another few hours at the blinds photographing the birdlife. I had hoped a Lewis's woodpecker would show up but no such luck. Oh well, there's always next time!



By this time my camera battery had expired and I did not have a spare. My Birding Associate was kind enough to take over photography duties so the rest of these are by him.

Fort Rock was our next destination....it's right down the road from Cabin Lake. It looks like a giant volcanic fallen souffle out in the middle of an ancient lake bed.


You can hike in and all around the area. Be warned.....it's like a souffle on the outside but like a hot wok on the inside....take plenty of water and sunscreen!!



Tons of birds nest here. Thousands of nooks and crannies house everything from swallows and Rock Wrens to owls and Prairie Falcons. We encountered all of those birds plus White-throated Swifts; Fort Rock is a reliable place to see them. The owls had plenty of places to hide for the day but we found ample evidence of their existence along one side of the rock.

All the white you see is bone.


Years (or maybe just months) of dissolved pellets containing the bones of all the little mammals caught by the Great Horned Owls that raised their young here.


Stay tuned for the final destination - Summer Lake.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Laura Goes to the Rodeo

Admittedly, no birding was done at the rodeo.

It was a fantastic show...the 75th Annual St Paul Rodeo in St Paul, Oregon. Very patriotic, very professional, and a clean comedy banter provided by the announcer and rodeo clown. Just a great time on the 4th of July!

Here are some images of bucking, roping, barrel racing, and, of course, the audience.























Friday, July 2, 2010

Central Oregon Part 2

From Sisters, we headed to Bend and then south, finally heading east and arrived at Cabin Lake campground. We'd traveled a Forest Service road to get in and the huge Ponderosa pines were breathtaking. We saw several Lewis's Woodpeckers flycatching from perches and sallying about the treetops. I hadn't had much experience with either sapsuckers or Lewis's Woodpeckers but now I've been reading that both are consummate flycatchers, as witnessed at Calliope Crossing.

The campground was at the edge of the pines and we could look out onto the plains and see the transition from forest to Great Plains habitat. Lots of sage and rabbit brush out there...plenty of wildflowers, too. No water or facilities at this campground and best of all, NO OTHER PEOPLE. Lack of facilities keeps the riff raff out.....


Well, looks like two of the riff raff made it in after all......



The campground was lovely but the real draw for this place are the water features next door at the Forest Service Guard Station. The station is closed but there are two permanent blinds each overlooking a "guzzler"; a small basin filled with water from adjacent tanks. Water is scarce in these parts so birds come from all around to sip awhile. Photographers and birders also flock here and two separate photographers blinds were set up nearby. Still, only four people present....not exactly a hopping tourist attraction, fortunately for us.




I have a Canon PowerShot SD890IS, just a wee point and shoot. It's got a 20x digital zoom on it which works pretty well. Sitting quietly in the blind, with just my little camera with its little lens, even I was able to capture some pretty spectacular bird shots. I will let the birds speak for themselves.

Mourning Dove

Red Crossbills



Western Tanager male and female





Chipping Sparrow

Brewer's Sparrows


Cassin's Finch



joined by a Northern Flicker


Yellow pine Chipmunk? Where's my mammal book....

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel


Green-tailed Towhee


White-breasted Nuthatch


Yellow-rumped Warbler

White-headed Woodpecker




And it was all capped off by a gorgeous moonrise......this was taken through my scope. Cool!

More soon!