07 June 2009

Personal Use Sonograms

To help me learn bird songs, I have taken screen shots of sonograms off websites and printed them:

  • sonogram
  1. find one on web
  2. alter viewing options, (if possible) such as upper limit of frequency displayed and
  3. NOTE: try to use the same upper limit and time scale so you can compare sonograms quickly and maybe even time songs in the wild. Try 10,000 Hz as the max frequency shown (good for warblers) and about 1 second per centimeter (good for warblers, individual phrases of vireos, some of robin-like bird's songs)
  • capturing and printing
  1. print screen sonogram
  2. paste to new file in photo-editing program
  3. desaturate so you're not using up all your ink
  4. print
  • to take birding - put your 6 inch by 4 inch printed sonograms in a photo album such as the two-to-a page slide-in ones - sonogram in the top slot, index card for notes in the bottom!

01 June 2009

Bird Songs, Words to Describe 'em - Working

A 'complex' bird song is made up of one or more phrases?

A song is complex if it has more than one tone, discernable elements and / or different or variable phrases?

A 'confusing' bird song is one that sounds very similar to another species and needs to be studied to be able to tell them apart. lol.

This Yellow-rumped Warbler sonogram shows a one-phrase song. Remember: not all individual Yellow-rumps (aka Butter Butts) sing this song; probably not a good example because of the Myrtle's / Audubon's lumping but a good example of a one-phrased song with a monotonous trill.

Aspects of a song
  • pitch
  • duration / length
  • tempo / speed
  • phrase, phrasing
  • transition / change to next phrase
  • melody
  • song type
  • voice
  • rhythm
Aspects of a phrase
  • pitch
  • duration / length
  • emphasis
  • element / part
  • pattern
Words that describe the aspects:
  • moderate - pitch
  • rising / ascending - phrase
  • falling / descending - phrase
  • pure - tone
  • fast - trill
  • slow - trill
  • piercing - tone, voice
  • melodic - voice
  • variation - between, within, or of phrases
  • thin / weak / soft (quiet) - tone, voice
  • strong / loud - tone, voice
  • pick-up tone - rhthym
Looking for words to describe the following, and for clarifying all this attempted organization.
  • the transition speed between parts of a phrase

Bird Songs, Individual Differences

Yesterday I sat at a picnic table in a local regional park for a couple of hours 'studying' the bird songs around me and thinking about how best to describe them. A Yellow-rumped Warbler called the whole time and I took quite a good set of field notes of his song - as in, I could actually interpret them when I got home and almost recall the song in my head.

I wrote:
phrase of two parts:
  • first part consisting of a monotone or slightly ascending trill, moderate speed. Trill equal to a twitter, very slightly buzzed, mostly clear tones;

  • second part, executed immediately after first part, higher pitched, ascending, variable warble of slightly shorter duration than first part (warble = more than two tones) consisting of a variable ascending trill.
Then! I played some warbler calls LOUD on my mp3 player through little portable external speakers I pack around with me (I don't like headphones cuz they get tangled with my bino strap and my eye-glasses cord that I need so I don't lose my glasses when I take them off to read because I'm getting old, you know).

Anyway, the Yellow-rumped Warbler changed its song! After singing the same song for an hour, it changed, seemingly, in response to my play-back! The first part was noticeably higher pitched and definitely ascending and the second part was even shorter than before. Then this new version, Song B, slowly evolved back into Song A, with the second part going back to the Song A sooner than the first part. It repeated Song A again several times, then burst into song B, which again morphed back to song A over several repetitions.

Today, as I sit writing this, with my office window open, a Yellow-rumped Warbler is calling from a nearby fir tree.

Is it singing the exact same song as the one in the park yesterday? No, not really! This song is not in two discernable parts - the monotone trill grading into a more warbling ascending trill at the end. This one is more just a single phrase with the whole thing starting with the monotone trill, upwards, to end in almost individual cheeps. What can I say - it's hell to be detail oriented, and probably boring to read.

Bird Songs, Working Thoughts 1

Complex bird songs don't stick in my head from year to year. I have been birding for 30 years and recognize many sounds of my local species but the complex songs of warblers, vireos, and robin-like ones, for example, have me shredding my auricles.

I've been look at sonograms (spectrographs) from the macaulaylibrary.org in an effort to find a way to remember them. Browsing through the library I finally realize there are many dialects and even individually unique songs for one species. I feel better about myself - it isn't necessarily me being dense - the song I'm hearing for that species IS different than ones on recordings and may be an individual bird!

Recommendations for learning bird songs include:
  • Do your learning in the field
Follow the bird singing and identify it; associating the song to the bird is more likely to stick in your head then.

That would be great with all the time in the world and the ability to 'crane' your neck for hours until the little blighter in the top of a 60-foot spruce tree held still long enough in good light to show its field marks!

Fellow birder Rick Howie wrote: "After making such an effort, it was counter-productive to forget the song until the next time for fear that you would have to spend so much time tracking the beasty again."

This seems to work best for common species you see easily and frequently and are easy to identify. I guess that is how all the buzzes of the Pine Siskin got burned in my brain.

  • Describe the song to yourself and identify it every time you hear it
What words do I use to describe the song? Study sites and guide books use words like "buzz" and "trill" - what's the difference between a slow buzz and a trill? And what's the difference between a 'bounding' warble and a 'flat' warble, as I read on one site?

That's great if you know what species you're hearing in the first place (and you can hear, in the first place) - Catch 22.

  • Trust a fellow birder to tell you what it is - ah, ummm, well, need I say more?
  • Compare the song to a recording which you either
  1. take with you on a CD, tape, mp3 player, or iPod with "Bird Jam" software or
  2. have made written or mental notes to compare with your recordings back home
Have you noticed yet that air temperature, wind, human activity, distance from bird, etc. affect what you hear and which tones are carried?

This is why, I think, the opening tones of the Western Meadowlark are so piercing and loud - they carry quite far and can be heard in different atmospheric and sound-environmenent conditions. It is like they are saying "Here I am! I'm going to sing now! Listen up!"

The recordings are usually much better (more audible frequencies) than what you hear in the field. You can't always hear all the elements under field conditions! The buzzy quality of a weak buzzy tone might get drowned out by other sounds or temperature differences and you perceive more of a pure tone than the buzz on the recording.

Lower air temperatures = denser air = more energy required to move the air / create a sound wave = differences in distance sound carries and the frequencies carried / die-off of lower or higher frequency tones (I'm not sure which).

Also, as mentioned previously, different individuals may sing different songs, and different areas may have different dialects.

WhatBird.com says "Male Lazuli Buntings two years of age and older sing only one song, composed of a series of different syllables, and unique to that individual" OMG!

If you use a sound device in the field, your batteries could die. Then you'd have to rely on some other method - taking notes - or give up.

And, if you tried to remember / used notes - you've forgotten by the time you get back home to your CD player, computer, whatever or can't remember what your notes or musical notations mean.

  • Use a mnemonic such as 'sam peabody'
Who the 'h' is Sam Peabody and do the tones go up or down? Or "sweet, sweet, sweet, a little more sweet" or "chee-erp". I can't remember the mnemonic I chose as a memory jogger!

Who can interpret those descriptions in the field guides without some recording to reference?

Kenn Kaufman in "Advanced Birding" wrote about certainty of identification using all possible clues (re: Empidonax flycatchers) "If you reach the stage at which you feel you can name every Empid you see in the field, you are probably deluding yourself. . . I have studied these birds . . . and examined thousands of museum specimens . . . and individuals - and I believe I can confidently name about 80 percent of the Empids I see"

So, even a real expert puts his identification skills as a percentage of birds seen, not identifying every one. I can do that!

Following posts will list some of the words I am defining for myself to describe songs in 'lay' terms.

Happy avian eaves-dropping!