Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Thoughts on Audio Apps

End of the line for this Sibley Guide (digiscoped).

A few days ago at Pheasant Branch Conservancy, I spotted a Sibley Eastern Guide to Birds floating in the creek. Well, it wasn't a lifer, as I already have a copy. My hunch is a birder set it on the bridge railing and inadvertently knocked it off. I, too, ditched my paper field guides recently, but they're at home on my bookshelf. I've gone digital for good. So far I've used BirdJam, iBird Pro, but my favorite is the Sibley Guide for iPhone/iPod Touch. There are plenty of user reviews of these apps on the web, so I'd like to focus more on the ethics of their use in the field.

As a field trip leader for Madison Audubon, I think these digital devices and apps are a wonderful educational tool for my participants. An illuminated image works extremely well in a dense woodland or overcast days, but the screens can be a little difficult to see well when it's sunny outside. However, the main issue some birders and naturalists have is the fact these apps contain audio recordings of songs and calls and can be played loud enough for birds to hear. On the opening page of the Sibley app it states: "Please consider the birds and other birders before playing audio recordings in the field." Anyway, there have been a few recent articles on the interwebs about how these devices are upsetting birds.

Last year during spring migration at Pheasant Branch, I experimented with warblers using BirdJam on my iPod Nano with a portable iMango speaker system. Common Yellowthroat and Yellow Warbler are the only warbler species that nest along the creek corridor, so I was careful only to play songs and calls to birds that were very unlikely to nest at the conservancy. Also, I didn't loop the songs to play them continuously. My conclusion? When playing a track or two, most warblers seemed oblivious to it.

There were notable exceptions. I got an incredibly aggressive response from a Northern Waterthrush when I played a version of that species song and a Mourning Warbler became pretty agitated, too. Having hits and misses put questions in my mind. Was it because Dane County isn't far from their breeding range and the bird's "nearly home" hormonal cycle would make an aggresive response more likely? Was it a specific quality of the recording I played? Are these particular warbler species more inclined to respond to recordings in an aggressive manner?

Thinking back to Donald Kroodma's book about birdsong The Singing Life of Birds, I recall the chapter on neighboring Song Sparrows with regard to song “type matching” versus “repertoire matching” and aggression level response. When playing recordings to warblers, I noticed often times the version of a song on my iPod was discernibly different from what that particular species typically sings in my geographical location (even when considering alternate songs). For example, I wonder whether or not a Chestnut-sided Warbler song recorded on breeding territory several states away might be different enough not to be recognized by the same species in Wisconsin. Or, is the subtle difference precisely what agitates it because it's deemed an intruder. The truth is, I was unable to predict how any particular bird would respond to recordings and I don't think I want to become an expert in this area.

When used responsibly and respectfully, these digital audio apps are helpful to birders inexperienced with identifying birds by ear. For example, this spring a Cerulean Warbler was singing a fair distance away, but a birder I was with was unable to hear the song. Though I emulated and described it, she still couldn't get on it. When I played the song (quietly) via my iPod, the next time the warbler sang she instantly picked up on it. I've done the same during some of my field trips this spring with similar "ah ha!" moments. To be sure, there is a dark side to this technology. I know of a photographer who blasts bird songs so loud and repeatedly that target birds have attacked his camera lens. The poor bird perches at the end of a twig and sings over and over responding what it perceives as territorial challenger.

What's been your experience with the use of song recordings in the field?

© 2011 Mike McDowell