On being… heard but not seen

 By Ingrid Sapona 

We’ve all seen photos or videos of people on birding treks. Invariably they’ve got binoculars in their hands or hung around their necks and they’re gazing up in hopes of spotting some beloved feathered creature. Birding, as it’s called, has never appealed to me because I am hopeless at spotting birds in trees. I’ve sat on the balcony of many a condo in Mexico and though I enjoy watching the birds flying nearby, once they head into a tree, they disappear to me. 

Given this fact, awhile back when I got an email about a New York Times on-line event called The Joy of Birding, my initial inclination was to hit DELETE. But I was intrigued by the fact that one of the speakers was Amy Tan, the novelist. So, I registered and tuned in. 

Tan explained that she began birding in 2017 when she put out a feeder in her backyard in hopes of attracting hummingbirds. She said that soon the birds acknowledged her, she felt she’d entered their domain. That hooked her on birding, which she described as a guilty pleasure she does every day in her California backyard. (Indeed, her upcoming book, which will be published next year, is called Backyard Bird Chronicles.) 

The program talked about the summer birding project the Times is running with eBird and The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Folks participating in the project are using the Merlin Bird ID app, which they described as Shazam for birding. This piqued my interest because Shazam’s an awesome app that can identify all sorts of music based on as little as a 5-or-so- second snippet. It uses your phone’s mic to pick up the song and then it compares it to millions of songs in its database. In seconds, Shazam tells you the song title and artist. The idea of an app that can help you identify birds as easily as Shazam recognizes music was more than intriguing so I downloaded Merlin. To get started, you download a “Bird Pack”, which is a database of birds found in a particular region. I downloaded the Canada East Bird Pack. 

Merlin identifies birds by sound or photo. You can bet which of those features was of interest to me! The app also has an “explore” feature that, when you click on it, brings up a list of birds likely to be seen in your area that day. The list shows pictures of the birds and when you tap on one of the birds, you get and three options: “ID Info”, “Sounds”, “Map”. The ID Info tells you about the bird’s behaviour. For example, according to Merlin, Double-crested Cormorants dive underwater to catch fish and find perches to spread their wings to dry their feathers – behaviours I’ve noticed many times at my sail club. 

When you tap on “Sounds” up comes sample audio clips of sounds made by that species. For example, for the American Robin there are audio clips of their “song”, “calls”, “alarm calls”, and even “juvenile calls”. I don’t know about you, but I had never thought about the different types of sounds birds make. Each audio clip also displays a black and white voice print of that sound. These prints provide a visual representation of the sound and they are what the app uses to identify bird sounds when the app user clicks on Sound ID. 

The next morning when I heard birds chirping, I decided to test Merlin. I stepped onto my balcony and clicked the Sound ID function. As the app recorded the sounds, I watched it create a voice print. Then the app matched it to the sounds in its database and the names of the bird(s) immediately appeared on screen. When you stop recording you compare the sound and the voice print you just made with the database’s recordings/voice prints of the identified bird to see if it matches. In that 10 second recording I made from my urban balcony Merlin told me I was hearing House Sparrows. Imagine that! 

Later that morning, as I passed through a quiet walkway I heard birds. I decided to see what Merlin might identify. The first bird to come up was one I’d never heard of: a Killdeer. Then, as the recording continued, a bunch of other names popped up. In my 48 second recording Merlin identified eight different birds. I was speechless. I looked around and didn’t see a single bird – and yet, clearly there were many different species around me. I replayed the recording to see if I could even distinguish any differences in the sounds and sure enough I could! 

Not only was I hooked on Merlin, I began paying much closer attention to the different sounds around me. I don’t aspire to identify individual species per se. But I do like trying to distinguish patterns and different pitches in different calls. 

Paying attention to the distinct sounds of birds has been a revelation. It’s helped me feel more connected to nature and reminds me there’s much more than just what meets the eye. 

© 2023 Ingrid Sapona


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