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:

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!


2 thoughts on “Background Noise

  1. Hi Mark

    I will be in the Greenwood area late July, would you give me more precise info. on where you saw tthe Vesper Sparrow. I will be birding Cape Breton and the Northumberland area in July. Thanks.

    Jean Demers


    • The location is well noted on the eBird checklists and the directions a bit cumbersome but, basically, find the route through the Greenwood air base to the entrance to Greenwood Golf Club and anywhere along the perimeter fence. The area is sparsely vegetated so you should have no trouble.


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