Background Noise

Over the past few years I’ve become more interested in making field recordings of bird song and calls and even their non-vocal noises, such as woodpeckers drumming or hummingbirds whirring. In years past, to do decent recording you had to lug a parabolic reflector and tape set up around, looking more like a Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) enthusiast on a picnic. Now recording can be done on phones, iPods and you can buy hand-held devices which offer a range of capabilities when it comes to making an acceptable, think worth uploading to eBird, recordings.

There is stuff to learn, not least the semi-alien (SETI again!) language of low-pass filters, megahertz and decibels. Like all things, assumed knowledge can block your path to audio enlightenment, and there is a space in the pantheon of free literature for a simplistic guide to both audio recording and recorders, not to mention the all-important processing of said recordings. Simplistic is the key thing here because, if you mention technical stuff before fully explaining it, people’s eyes just glaze over, or is that just me?

In the beginning I was recording with my iPod touch and got some results. Later I also realised I had a load of birds singing or calling away on video clips from our foreign tips and so I found out how to extract sound recordings from video(easy).  To be able to do this required a simple (within the genre) piece of software and along came Audacity.

Audacity is a free download and simple to use, although I suspect that I am only using 1% of its capabilities. At the very basic level and you can soon converting all of those audio files into something useful, that would be WAV and not MP3 files (MP3 bad say eBird and experts). By working with your own audio recordings, you should get better at recognising what you hear in the field simply due the repetition of time spent listening to and editing the recordings. You will also suffer frustration too, but there are some solutions for when those chips, chatters and even full-blooded songs evade identification, that would be Xeno-Canto where you can post your recording and ask for help. A bit like all those Facebook pages where people dump crappy photos and don’t even use the word please, except Xeno-Canto is for the more cerebral .

In search of improvement, I moved on from the iPod, which gave a spotty recording at times, to using my cell phone, I hold off on calling it a smart phone although the manufacturers might beg to differ. Using downloaded apps (first RecForge 11 and then a different one, Soundbugger ™ or similar, that also worked. I swapped apps when the RecForge 11 thing refused to let me download recordings older than a day so it was toast. The phone did a job for a while but, suddenly, it stopped being recognised by the computer’s USB, in fact any computers USB. The problem was that the connection pin had twisted during the plugging in of the charging lead and once bent that was it.  Back at the store my two month old phone found itself sadly obsolete, having sailed beyond the ungenerous 15 DAY replacement warranty. Sure my phone could be sent away but how would I answer it, or even hear the ring if it was in some repair shop in another country. I decided to keep the phone close and seek another alternative, when did we ever knowingly accept such crap as a fifteen day warranty!

In between iPod and Phone I had tried a Tascam DR-05, a simple and fairly inexpensive hand-held recorder. At first it worked OK, but later started to get less keen on the great outdoors, making my recordings sound like all the birds had a hacking cough, not always but enough to disappoint. This sort of unreliability leads to spicy language, naturally, and so I was told to buy something more suitable, better built and giving better quality recordings – I chose the Zoom H4N Pro, sans shotgun mike (as yet and another story).

Top is the Tascam DR-05, but then you can read that. Then the Zoom H4N Pro naked and, below, bedecked in it’s willy-warmer wind suppressor.

So far the rig is proving OK although I still make errors in thinking I have pressed record, my bad for being more interested in the observation than bothering with petty detail. The built-in  mics are better on the H4N although I still need to use the wind muffler more often than not; well this is coastal Nova Scotia after all. The unit feels well-built, is a little heavy but not overly so and, at a pinch, could be used in any bush duel with to stun an angry Bear. I have no doubt that I will suffer disappointments but they may well be mostly of my own making. In the same way I encourage people to look at everything when they are afield, butterflies, dragonflies, other bugs, anything really as well as birds, then I also encourage the more serious birders to add the audio recording of birds to both their capabilities and their overall contribution to the knowledge database, after all, Cornell cannot have enough recordings of Song Sparrow I’m sure.

The birding has been pretty much like most of June, disappointing!  June is rapidly becoming the February of early summer with mostly poor weather and wind that never leaves. Insect levels are low and the birds have been struggling for food, some species have given up, perhaps for now but perhaps for the season, and there are species gaps and low counts in the daily checklists. Even in a bad spell you get the odd bird though and we managed to enjoy a singing Wood Thrush at Cape Forchu early in the month, later I saw Ervin’s White-winged Dove in his yard – a one-day bird although likely bouncing around southern NS somewhere.

 

A trip to Kentville allowed us to pause at Greenwood to visit one of the few Vesper Sparrow sites in the province.

 

On June-11 two Snowy Egrets were at Daniel’s Head for a while.

 

The odd Common Nighthawk has been seen, this one was along the Hectanooga Rd in Digby County, June-16.

 

We have a pair of Grey Catbirds who, despite the conditions, are feeding young. They are very tame and will hop around feet away as they gather what bugs are available from our meadow (lawn!). If ever you needed encouragement to make your yard a mixture of managed and messy this is it, oh and all of those great plants, insects and other birds you’ll be helping along by not anally giving your grass a razor cut.

So, while the birding has not been wow, but it will improve, I have (re) turned my gaze to the world of moths. Years ago I was an avid moth trapper (and releaser) in the UK. In Quebec  I did a bit but not much and in NS I’ve mostly been very casual, just showing interest in a resting moth when found. A few nights ago I stuck the outside light on for the night and have done so twice since. With just that limited attractant I have increased my yard list from single figures to over 40 species and we may even have a summer to come!

If you also want to have a go, and be aware that it becomes a very useful waste of time (I do like an oxymoron), then get the Peterson guide to Northeastern North American moths and use this site too, it is very useful: http://mothphotographersgroup.msstate.edu/species.php?hodges=6667&state=NS

It is set for Nova Scotia but you can re-jig it to where you are. Here are a few of my recent ones and I’m not even going to tell you what they are, go find them!

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Skewered

Here in Nova Scotia, life should be easy when dealing with skuas, we (mostly) get two – South Polar and Great. It wasn’t always so and it was really only in the mid-1980s that South Polar was realised to be the most likely skua to be encountered in our waters after a July record was sufficiently documented. That opened up all previous Great Skua records to natural debate. Establishing what species may be recorded is all well and good, but much skua identification is problematical and distant skuas may not always be attributable to a species. I would go further and say that this is a group where acceptable records are best validated by being documented with a decent photograph. I say this because, unfortunately, there is often contradictory information when it comes to identification of skuas and we do not yet fully understand skua plumages and biometrics well enough to make a fully accurate call for every individual seen without the luxury of taking a long, second look at digital images. Skuas can be the silent empids of the high seas!

You’d think that at least Great and Chilean Skua would be straightforward but the proclivity of the latter to interbreed with both South Polar and Brown Skua muddies the salty water. However, such individuals are probably rare enough within the main species’ breeding range as to be all but eliminated from our North Atlantic enquiries.  Brown Skua may be a different matter and our pelagic senses would do well to be tuned into the possibility that this brute of a sea bird could find its way north in season. But this is a ‘might be’ and even South Polar Skua summer movements are not well known enough to be confidently stated. The mystery of why they are so readily encountered and identified at sea off the eastern seaboard of North America, and yet Europe has yet to satisfactorily document one is interesting. South Polar Skua should be off the UK and Ireland in late summer, where it would be a minority amongst the masses of Great Skuas and therefore, to some extent, more obvious. Personally I suspect that the, at the time overly cautious approach to new species adopted by the UK birding authorities, has much to do with the absence of South Polar from their UK list, but eventually a boatload of enthusiasts will fill their collective SD cards with acceptable images, and then gloat.

To further make the point regarding the identification of South Polar versus Great Skua, where borderline individuals are involved, a South Polar Skua from the September-24 2016 Brier Island pelagic was only tentatively called in the field, rather we relied on critical examination of the adequate photographs taken at the time to make a confident ID, a reasonable degree of caution. Obviously this will not always be the case and some skuas can be confidently identified in the field, obvious South Polars do look different from obvious Greats, but there is a broad range in between.

The Aug-04 2017 Pubnico pelagic encountered two skuas, one a ‘standard’, if tatty looking, South Polar, the other was best described as ‘interesting’ in that, biometrically at least (big bill), it was different from what we expect of a Nova Scotia South Polar, and so the possibility that it was a Brown Skua was floated. Differences in bill size between sexes in birds is normal, but Pubnico Skua#2 clearly has a corker, whereas the messy first bird and the one off Brier in September 2015 are, to all biometric intents and purposes, identical. With such a bird as Skua#2, consultation with other birders is a given and any, all, experienced comment is invaluable. Fortunately there is a wealth of experience out there in the wider birding world and so questions were posed and answered. Skua#2 is a South Polar albeit with a large bill, however, there is value in understanding the second bird better.

Fortunately this bird was well documented and the available photographs made requesting input much easier than relying on potentially subjective descriptions. I am indebted to Klaus Malling Olsen, Paul Walbridge, Jeff Davies, Rohan Clarke and Dick Filby for agreeing to take a look at the photos and for offering sage advice when dealing with South Polar versus Brown Skua; I have taken the liberty of including their comments in the text. Many thanks also to Claude King for his generosity in allowing me to use his excellent and instructive photographs of Brown, South Polar and Chilean Skua November 2016. Bravo for the shot of all three together. Any other photos used are mine.

And now the images.

These three heads are all Nova Scotian records of South Polar Skua. The first is from the aforementioned Brier trip of 2016, the middle one the Pubnico #1 bird of 2017 and the other is ‘Big Nose’ himself. I think you can see the differences mentioned.

 

Here are more shots of the Brier bird showing why we wanted to look at images of it before confidently calling it a South Polar. The initial impression was that it may be a Great, then better views placed doubt in most minds.

 

For reference this is Pubnico bird #1; a messy creature for sure but very instructive and well seen. The sea was much more benign on that trip than on the Brier one.

 

Here are a few shots of Pubnico bird #2 ‘Big Nose’, the moulting 1st year South Polar Skua. The lack of projecting toes beyond the central retrices in flight are an immediate pointer to South Polar versus Brown. The plumage tones, although mixed due to various stages of moult and the lack of bulk are further South Polar indicators.

 

These are Brown Skuas from Antarctica, specifically Carcass Islands, the Falklands 22-Nov, 2016; and two images from Salisbury Plain, South Georgia on 26-28-Nov, 2016 respectively ©Claude King.

 

This is a South Polar Skua from the South Shetland Isles 03-Dec, 2016 ©Claude King.

 

This excellent photo shows well the basic differences between Brown, South Polar and Chilean Skuas, from the South Shetland Isles 03-Dec, 2016 ©Claude King.

 

To summarise, a skua species with a large looking bill and intriguing plumage was seen off south-western Nova Scotia on Aug-04, 2017. It was identified at the time as a South Polar Skua. On review the images and following comments from elsewhere, it was suggested that the possibility of Brown Skua (or Brown Skua influence)was worthy of investigation. Comments from seabird experts were sought and generously given, and South Polar Skua (1st year) was confirmed. Pelagic birding in Nova Scotia is really only in its infancy and we are always grateful when more experienced observers are willing to share their knowledge and improve ours, only through inquisitive investigation do we learn.

Anything About?

As a birder living on Cape Sable Island you sort of hope to have it covered, well at least a bit of it although, given that less than 5% has any access it probably is a stretch to use the word ‘covered’, more like lightly kissed, but we try. We do get to look at the main places regularly, such as Daniel’s Head, The Hawk and environs and a few spots besides, otherwise the rest of the island could be sheltering a thousand Connecticut Warblers and nobody but they would know it. My personal coverage might be generously called normal, although some may say obsessive. In 2018 I’ve managed to put in 351 checklists, an average of 2.27 a day, see, quite normal when viewed like that, just ignore the days ‘off-island’ please, pretty please.

My over 500 Nova Scotia checklists so far this year are part of my consecutive streak of 712 days of checklists according to eBird, I checked back to see why there were gaps, naturally, and found the comments ‘quiet’, on the absent days so I did go out birding but the trip was ‘unbookable’, nothing of value for a checklist. I mention all of this so you can see that I am trying! I say trying in the effort sense and not getting under your skin although I’ll hold my hands up to that one from time to time too, so you see, although it is great to see the birds it is another component in this strange birding year of mine when they are found by someone else.

Finding a bird is one of the many pleasures birding has to offer. Not necessarily the kudos of finding it but the personal gratification of seeing and identifying the rare/scarce bird yourself, then sharing it of course. Although their numbers are few here, I don’t get those people who show up at other peoples’ rarities but don’t share their own. We all suffer them, some make excuses for them, but we all know who and what they are and they are barely worth a mention.

Generally I have done ok, I tend wear the birds down by attrition so they give up and I don’t have very many fly-bys so I get to share the majority. This year, for reasons I cannot put my finger on, it is not happening for me. I could list a list but I won’t because the year could easily turn, especially with living and birding on Cape Sable Island, but for the present the rarities that are appearing here are not giving me the first bite.  On Jun-02, I sat in the fog on The Guzzle going through what was there and enjoying a family of Killdeer as the young, with adult legs and baby bodies, teetered all over the place and one of the adults stood in the middle of the occasionally busy road (nobody would say Killdeers were bright although compared to some US presidents…) calling. It was a grotty morning but the afternoon perked up without changing the avian mix. On June-03 Kathleen MacAulay (a very welcome addition to the southern NS resident birder ranks) visited CSI and found a Glossy Ibis on The Guzzle next to the very place I sat, illustrating perfectly how we island resident birders never quite have the place covered. 

The ibis was very welcome; we didn’t manage one last year at all after a glut in 2016. It fed quietly in the sheep fields on The Guzzle but was sporting a somewhat theatrical limp, which may give us a clue as to where else it has been prior.  The photos are not great, bordering doc-shot really.

 

Continuing the long-legged bird theme, Paul Gould found an obliging Green Heron in Lower Woods Harbour, or Upper or Middle, I’m never sure with that area. It fed alongside the busy road and many passing trucks were happy to slow down to pass us birders enjoying it, some even waved and tooted in approval.

 

Sandra and I had business in the big city (Yarmouth) and so took the chance to grill The Willows on Chebogue Point. Apart from this Eastern Wood-Pewee, which looked more interesting when viewed through foliage before showing better, it was quiet.

 

I float! Ever since we came here I have wanted a small boat. Our area is a mass of small islands, all readily explored by skiff and many unknown quantities when the birds arrive. Becoming sixty has its upside and so my gift on reaching that venerable age, something the males in my family have not shown a deal of promise in doing previously, was to get kitted out to float under my own steam so to speak. Nothing fancy was required, a small boat with a trailer and outboard big enough to make brisk passage where needed. Now I have a few of the legal things to sort out, trailer inspection, insurance cover etc. I have procured my Pleasure Craft Operators Licence, that is three hours of looking at the very obvious doing the on-line course I won’t get back. I actually only managed 92%, it was getting late and I’d had enough of yelling ‘it’s a skiff’ at the computer, I think Sandra had too!

My skiff, as yet unnamed. Not sure how the old fella wandered into shot, I’m sure I’m taller with darker hair!

Incidentally, Sandra has a new blog, not an arty one but a writing and photos one. Go to https://sanonthelam.Wordpress.com I like it already.

After five years of heavy birding with them my Swarovskis have developed a fault. It did not affect the image but, if I venture into the tropics (or hit warm water on a pelagic!) they might fog in one eye, so they have gone in for repair. I hear only good things about the Swarovski repair shop but I will be counting the days until they come home to me. Meanwhile I am using Sandra’s old Zeiss Victory bins. Not quite roughing it but not my ‘Swaros’ either (still, my next screw-up can be blamed on something else now, when/if it happens!).

The murky line around the periphery of the lens is not a regular feature of Swarovski binoculars.