Recording Bird Songs

I've been wanting to work on recording birdsong for awhile now, but never really knew where to start.

Luckily, I now have a winter project to work on in preparation for next spring thanks to a series of blog posts by Ted Floyd of the American Birding Association.

How to record birdsong:

How to record birdsong: Part 1

How to record birdsong: Part 2

How to record birdsong: Part 3


Using eBird to get the most out of visits to our National and State Parks

A recent article on the National Parks Traveler website about using eBird to plan birding trips (or getting the most out of a short amount of time if your non birding family is along) got me thinking about what a great tool eBird and a couple of smartphone apps that use eBird are for birding National and State Parks.

Anyone who has used eBird (or the BirdLog NA app in these pictures) has likely noticed hotspots that look like "Kilen Woods SP" and "Kilen Woods--Campground".

Some of you may have wondered what the difference is and which one you should select.  Well, eBird considers data collected at "fine resolutions" to be more useful than data collected over a large area.  In other words, checklists/sightings for individual trails, lakes, ponds, creeks, and such within a National/State Park are more useful than just saying you saw X number of X species in the whole entire park.

Now, you don't have to do that if you don't want to.  The information from your sightings will still be beneficial to both scientists and other birders.  However, while I don't know the exact effects on the science end, I think anyone who is a birder can understand the difference between knowing a bird was sighted somewhere in the park and knowing it was sighted along a specific trail within that park.  Personally, I recommend people try and use the most specific hotspot they can.  If there is not one already for the trail/lake/etc that you birded, then best option is to create one or just use the National/State Park...  don't just use the closest hotspot to where you were.

While submitting your sightings to eBird following the above "protocols" is the most helpful method, it does create one problem.  If you want to see all the sightings within a single National/State Park, you have to look at all the individual hotspots within it, and in some cases, that can be overwhelming.

One possible solution: I've long thought that eBird was missing a very useful option - the ability for users to select a hotspot and see all the sightings within a certain range of that spot.   This would allow people to select a hotspot within a National/State Park and then expand the range to see everything within, for example, 20 miles.  This would allow you to see a comprehensive list of all sightings within the park, but it could also select some areas nearby that you don't want.

This option already does exist for anyone who uses the Birdseye NA smartphone app.  With just a couple of touches/swipes, Birdseye NA allows you to see all the recent sightings to eBird within a selected distance of your current location (or a selected hotspot).  It gets better though....  it also shows you species that you have not seen before (based on your eBird lifelist), allowing you to easily find some new birds.

Here is a screenshot of the Birdseye NA app, showing Theodore Roosevelt NP.  Notice that it lists 55 recently seen species and the 4 species seen recently there that I have never seen.

A better option, (as a volunteer eBird HotSpot reviewer myself I know this could be done - but would take some solid volunteer work) would be to have all the individual hotspots for a park associated with an "umbrella" hotspot for that whole park.  So, all the sightings within a park could be seen with a single click, but could still be submitted at the specific locations.

I'm pretty sure this has been considered or is already in the plans, as I know that the eBird developers are constantly working on expanding the site to constantly improve it.

Anyhow, I encourage people who plan on birding National or State Parks to give check out eBird and the smartphone apps.  Play around with them a bit and maybe you'll be able to use the information gained to help you have a better birding trip or find a new life bird!


New books: ABA Field Guide Series

The ABA (American Birding Association) has recently started publishing a series of field guides focusing on individual states and authored by birders from those states.  The books are designed for beginner and intermediate birders, but early reviews make me think the books are very nice and written so well that anyone interested in birds will enjoy them.

The ABA Field Guide to the Birds of Colorado by Ted Floyd


News: The week in bird news

  • Another case of smuggling.  A Czech man was arrested trying to smuggle bird eggs into Australia.


Tech: Birdsnap Smartphone App

Earlier today I found out about a new app that claims it can ID birds from photos.

Birdsnap, a collaboration between Columbia University, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian Institution, was just released a few days ago on the iTunes store.  As of this writing, it is only available for iPhone 5/5(s) devices.

So, I downloaded the free app on my phone and tested it out taking photos of my computer screen.  Maybe not the best way to test it but it is evening currently and is supposed to rain all weekend, so I was left with no other choice.

To start the matching process, you either take a photo or find one on your phone.  Then the app asks you to tap the area where the eye(s) are and then again near the tail.  After 10-15 seconds of thinking, you should get a result.

I first tested it by taking photos of 5 birds that, while not rare, are not your typical backyard birds.  (Chipping Sparrow, Cerulean Warbler, Snowy Egret, Marsh Wren, and Vermillion Flycatcher).

I was very pleasantly surprised to find it matched all 5 on the first attempt.

Well.... how about shorebirds, sparrows, and fall warblers?  The birds that give people the most problems.

Not bad....  but could use some work.

  •  Least Sandpiper - Nailed it on first attempt
  •  Hudsonian Godwit - Kept misidentifying as Marbled Godwit.  Still a good guess considering the photo is of a drab Hudsonian Godwit.
  • Blackpoll Warbler (fall) - Misidentified as Cape May Warbler on first attempt.   Tried a new photo and could not ID at all.  
  • Blackburnian Warbler (fall) - Nailed it first attempt.
  • Leconte's Sparrow - Misidentified as Grasshopper Sparrow.  Second attempt with new photo also misidentified as Grasshopper Sparrow.  LeConte's appears to be in the database, so this species might need more work.
The app's user interface is reasonably well designed.  I was able to open it and start navigating right away, but I can see some areas where people who don't use phone apps very often could get overwhelmed.

My only real issue with the app is it's size.  At 899mb, this app will eat up lots of space on your phone and anyone who keeps a large collection of music or videos on their phone might not have space for it.  I assume the large size is needed for all the photos within the app, but it could be an issue for some people.

I'm definitely interested in seeing where this app goes.  It seems to be strong for a first release and could be a very good app for novice to intermediate birders or birders outside of their usual birding ranges.  However, the early problems with some of the harder to ID birds makes me hesitant to recommend it to birders who can recognize most birds on their own and are looking for something to help.  

They appear to have an area on their website where people can offer input and even volunteer to help improve their software.  

I'll have to play with this app for a few more weeks and review it again after some real world testing.


Tech: Submitting sightings to eBird using Birdlog

I've been entering my bird sightings into eBird since I started birding back in 2006.  I found it was an easy way to log and track all my sightings while also benefitting science.

However, I always ran into a couple of problems:

  • Sitting down and entering my sightings into eBird could be frustrating since I had to manually enter everything I had already written down previously in my journal.  Entering the location, time, and all the sightings could take 5-10 minutes per location.  If you had visited a half dozen locations, entering those sightings could take 30+ minutes.
  • All that required time led me to ignore sightings that I didn't feel were worthwhile or didn't include some sort of sighting that would boost one of my many lists.
  • To save time, I would just select the closest eBird Hotspot (within reason) and enter the sightings for there, instead of creating a new spot.  Even worse, I frequently entered a sighting just using the city or county function, which really didn't benefit science at all.
Fast forward a few years and I discovered the Birdlog app for iPhone.

Now, when I arrive at a birding location, I just open the app and can either quickly select the Hotspot by GPS if it already exists or quickly create a new one within a minute or two and begin birding.

If the birding is slow or I am checking out a pond/marsh/mudflat I will usually enter the sightings as I go.  If the birding is good and I don't want to miss something, I just enter the sightings every 5-10 minutes and then go through it adding to the list and finalizing the totals at the end or when there is a chunk of downtime.

Paul Hurtado at the Mostly Birds Blog has some great tips on using Birdlog.

Birdlog has resulted in my eBird sightings becoming far more accurate and useful while allowing me to spend more time watching birds and less time reporting them.


News: JFK Airport Contractors kill over 26,000 birds, including over 1,600 that are protected.

According to a report from the Huffington Post:

Wildlife control contractors have shot almost 26,000 birds at John F. Kennedy International Airport over the past five years to stop them interfering with passenger flights — including more than 1,600 protected birds the airport did not have express permission to kill, internal records show....


News: Saudi Royal Prince kills 2k+ endangered birds in Pakistan

Story in the Huffington Post today about a royal prince from Saudi Arabia who was allowed to hunt endangered Houbara Bustards in Pakistan and ended his "hunt" by killing around 2,100 of them.

A Saudi prince reportedly hunted and killed about 2,000 houbara bustards -- birds that are considered to be on the brink of extinction -- during a safari in Pakistan earlier this year.
Prince Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud hunted a total of 1,977 birds, which are globally protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, Dawn News reports. An additional 123 bustards were killed by local representatives, bringing the hunt’s death total to 2,100.....


Book Review: The Scientific Nomenclature of Birds of the Midwest

The Scientific Nomenclature of Birds of the Midwest

I first heard about this book while looking through the upcoming books section on Buteo Books website.  It sounded interesting and when I noticed that it was published by the Iowa Press (support your local publishers!) it jumped to the front of my wishlist.

This small reference title explains the history, science, and reasoning behinds the names of 450 birds of the upper midwest (from the Dakotas to Ohio and down to Missouri and Kansas).

When I first started flipping through the book finding different birds I found myself a bit frustrated that the book is organized alphabetically by genus as opposed to following a typical field guide layout according to taxonomy.  Since I am not at all fluent in the scientific names of birds, I found that whenever I wanted to look up a bird, I had to first find it's scientific name.  However, a week later, I am realizing that having the book organized this way is slowly making me learn the scientific names of some of the birds which has been a goal of mine for some time now.

Although I've only had the book a short time I've noticed a couple of things.  First, the naming of birds pretty much falls into a handful of categories:

  • Named for ornithologists, other naturalists, or their patrons:  Larus thayeri (Thayer's Gull);  Larus - Latin for " voracious seabird, gull";  thayeri - Named for John Eliot Thayer, a supporter of many ornithological expeditions.
  • Their appearance:  Tyrannus forficatus (Scissor-tailed Flycatcher); Tyrannus - Latin for "tyrant, despotic ruler, etc..).  This genus includes all the Kingbirds;  forficatus - Latin for "having the nature of scissors/shears".
  • Where they were collected: Cistothorus platensis (Sedge Wren); Cistothorus - From the Greek Kistos=Shrub and Thorus=Leaper which certainly describes both the Sedge and Marsh Wrens;  platensis - Coined Latin for "Of the Rio de la Plata" near Buenos Aires, where the specimen was collected.
Second, I've learned that some birds scientific names are a source of mystery or of unknown origin while others maker little sense or add confusion.

And finally, the authors note how DNA testing is constantly changing the way we classify birds which means that some birds might get moved to a different genus or get placed in a brand new one all by themselves, but they will always keep the same species designation.

I highly recommend this book for anyone with in interest in bird names or the history of ornithology.


Book Review: Sibley Guide to Birds, 2nd Edition

The Sibley Guide to Birds, Second Edition

I figured what better way to start off this blog than reviewing what is likely the most anticipated new bird book of the last few years, The Sibley Guide to Birds, Second Edition.

First, a little personal history with Sibley's book.  Back in 2000 when it was first released, I had just started working at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in a Minneapolis suburb.  I was not a birder, but the book caught my attention due to the large number of copies we received and how many copies we sold those first few weeks.

Fast forward a few years and I suddenly found myself heading on a camping trip to western North Dakota and I decided that I wanted to do some birdwatching (1st time ever) and I chose Sibley as my guide.

Well, the camping trip ended up being hot, buggy, and just plain miserable. However, I did end up finding a few birds and I'll forever remember seeing a couple of Spotted Towhees cooling off in the water from a leaky water faucet, and then sprinting back to the campsite and flipping through the pages until I finally ID'd those little birds.

That book has been with me through the first 8 years of birding and will always be one of my prized possessions, even if the cover is held together by duct tape.

Anyway, back on topic:

To begin with, let's discuss the obvious changes to the new edition.
  • Most revisions were done only to correct minor flaws like shading, contrast, and small changes to color patterns.
  • About 20% of all the paintings received, according to the author, "substantive revisions."  These revisions were made to fix errors with color patterns, tail shape, and bill shape.  Sibley states that these changes were made as the result of new information (at least to him), more personal experience with those species, and better reference material.
  • Over 600 new paintings featuring 111 rare species were added.
  • Range maps were updated to show changes in distribution  Sibley also added range maps to show subspecies distribution and in cases where birds might only be found in a small part of the country, the range map is "zoomed in" to illustrate the range better.
  • Lots of new information about habitat and behavior, along with tips on finding birds was added.
  • Many, is not most, of the paintings were enlarged slightly.
After almost 14 years since the first edition, anyone interested in birding knows that some species ranges have moved around a little bit and some (I'm looking at you Mr. Eurasian Collared-Dove) have changed quite noticeably.  So, updating the range maps is a pretty important first step in issuing a new edition.

Sibley also added 111 new rare species to the second edition in response to some species that were hardly seen back in 2000 now seem to be spotted annually.  I also believe that the addition of numerous rare species is a direct response to the reason many "hardcore" birders prefer the National Geographic Guide to Birds: "A guide to the birds they don't know much about."

One change, in regards to the newly added information, that I noticed immediately, was the change in layout and typeface.  For the most part, that layout changes are all very positive and give the book a very clean appearance.  However, the new typeface is quite thin and when light hits that nice glossy white paper, it becomes difficult to read.  I've read rumors that the typeface could be changed in a later printing, but I think that would also force a change in layout, so I would not count on that happening.

The rest of the changes are not likely to be noticed by novice or casual birders, but it is nice to know that he is constantly critiquing his own work and fixing it when it needs to be.

The book is stunning and deserves much praise.  Yet, for all the positive changes, there are a few problems that seem to have caught the attention of numerous birders and reviewers and they need to be mentioned.

  • Lack of scientific names for the numerous subspecies of birds.  This was discussed previous to the second edition and it is being discussed again.  Sibley posted his thoughts on his blog a few years ago and I would think that response still applies.
  • In some cases, a very noticeable over saturation of dark colors.  While I didn't find those few cases to be anything that would cause me to put the book on my shelf and wait for a second printing, a couple of them (Scarlet Tanager and Eastern/Western Bluebird are obvious examples) should maybe be reviewed and changes be considered for later printings.
David Sibley did post a comment on one blog regarding the color issues.  He appears to be standing behind the changes for the time being.

For now, my trusty 1st edition sits in my truck ready and willing to help me in the event of some lost bird finding it's way to Northwest Iowa while I keep the second edition by my bedside to flip through and admire before turning off the lights.

It's a beautiful book, but like all things it is not perfect, and I can't help but think that many of the reviews focusing on production issues are a result of people expecting perfection and being let down.