Monday, September 5, 2016

A Chorus of Songbirds: A Birdsong App for Everyone

By Jordan Daley
Science Outreach Coordinator

Full Disclosure: I'm not a birder. Though I guess you could say that I'm becoming one. When I started working at VINS a little over a year ago, my exposure to the birding world was limited to one good friend, who co-piloted a road trip with me that followed the Atlantic flyway before heading west to the Rockies. She taught me how to use binoculars and I once carefully described all the markings I could see on a bird outside our tent, with all the precision and dedication of a novice. She laughed as I described it in more and more detail; it was a pigeon. My friend had grown up on the East coast like me, and the only bird she really wanted to see when we reached the Rockies was a Steller's Jay, but the common bird evaded us straight through Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. Last fall in Yosemite, I felt for the first time, the delight of seeing a bird that had previously eluded me. A Steller's Jay was right there in front of me, not majestic at all, eating the crumbs the toddler in our party had left all over the campsite. I could have wept for joy.

Me and my binoculars in Rocky Mountain Nat'l Park,
pretending to know what I'm looking for.
As I said before, I'm not REALLY a birder. When we got home from our trip I set up a feeder outside my kitchen window and started to learn my backyard birds. Sometimes I can tell the difference between different families of hawk soaring over me. I definitely know when I've seen an owl, and the difference between a soaring eagle and a soaring turkey vulture. Even as my visual ID skills are steadily growing and I started to build some confidence, I was thrust into a whole new aspect of bird ID: BIRD SONG.




Steve and Caitlin were both patient and knowledgable:
"That sound? No Jordan, that's a squirrel."
I had the pleasure this spring of walking all over VINS' Old Pepper Place Nature Reserve with Caitlin Cusack, a forester from Vermont Land Trust and Steve Hagenbuch, a conservation biologist from Audubon Vermont. As we walked through the forest listening for the songs of forest birds, my secret soon came out. I had no idea what we were listening for. First they teased me, then they taught me a couple of mnemonics, and then they made sure to explain everything we were hearing. Just tuning myself to two songs- the black-throated green warbler and the black-throated blue warbler, suddenly opened up a whole new plane for observing the forest. I was paying attention to the sounds all around, above and below me, not just the movement in the trees in front of me- it's like birding in four dimensions.


After that eye, or rather, ear opening experience I jumped feet first into learning my bird songs. Luckily for me, VINS was working on our new app for iPads, A Chorus of Songbirds. I became it's first student, and let me tell you, this app is FUN.

In the gallery of songbirds, the photos are striking and the songs are clear. You can sort the species by various characteristics to learn about a family of birds or a geographic location. The very handy "similar species" function is probably the most important function for a newbie like me. Being able to listen to two songs that sounds similar, has helped me sharpen my listening skills and clued me in to small differences.

I would be remiss in my duty not to mention (read: warn you about) the highly addicting Songbird Wizard, a song or photo quiz game that tests your ID skills. If you're like me, working in an office all day, you might not get the daily practice of listening to bird song that can be essential to learning. This game is a truly enjoyable way to listen and build your skills wherever you are. Though I suggest setting a timer or else your 5 minutes coffee breaks might turn into marathon bird song breaks.


After a month of A Chorus of Songbird usage, I am proud to announce that I have stopped referring to the white-throated sparrow as "that mocking jay bird."

So many times when I open a birding app I discover that I just don't know where to start. I'm not sure how to translate my few observations into a solid search. I didn't feel that way with A Chorus of Songbirds. The information is clear and accessible for any kind of birder, even a haphazard one like me.

You can buy A Chorus of Songbirds for iPad only by following the link or searching for it in the app store, Try it for yourself and know that all of the proceeds go to VINS and support the important bird conservation, rehabilitation, and education work that we do here.

And I know what you're thinking, "She works there! Of course she has to sell it!" but I would also point out that I'm taking a big risk here. If my boss reads this and finds out just how much time I spent playing the bird song game, this might be the last post you ever read from me.





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