Birdchick Podcast #220 Birding Extremadura, Birds Do Weird Stuff

Have you seen Swarovski's new BTX scope? Also, the Cotton Carrier tactical birding harness is no joke and comfortable in the field. 

Are you having a hard day? Check out this bubbler type bath with a buttload of Allen's hummingbirds

Why do turkeys walk around in circles and why do bush stone curlews stare at themselves?

Canada's national bird battle

Migration needs to hit soon because all North American birders are doing is arguing about owls and baiting. 

Good Birders Still Don't Wear White is out and you should buy it!

Song Sleuth: The Bird Song ID App

One of the most common questions I get in my Tech Birding classes is, “Why is there no Shazam-type app that will allow me to use my phone to identify bird calls?"

Two reasons:

1.     Birds have accents. Generally, when you hear Adele singing “Hello” over a speaker in a Target in Minnesota and then a few months later hear Adele sing "Hello" over a speaker in a Walmart in Florida, it's the same song. However, a cardinal in Minnesota is going to sound different than a cardinal in Florida.

2.     Also when a song is playing, there’s usually only one song going on at a time. How many times is there just one species of bird singing at a time?

That said, there's a new app called Song Sleuth that wants to help you out!

The Song Sleuth app includes illustrations and bird information by David Sibley.

The Song Sleuth app includes illustrations and bird information by David Sibley.

Developers at Wildlife Acoustics have released the Song Sleuth app available for iPhone (an Android version should be coming in a few months). Wildlife Acoustics actually came out with an app before there were smart phones. It was in the form of a blue box you would wear around your neck that would record calls and try to id them. It wasn’t all that user friendly and was a bit cost prohibitive. I can’t remember the exact cost, but it was over $100.

That technology didn’t go over well in the consumer market but it did go over well in the biological survey field. When I used to do bird surveys for wind farms, I’d have to work with bat audio equipment from time to time and it was always Wildlife Acoustics software. The microphones would be set on timers to record sounds at night and then software was used to ID all the spectrograms of the different bat calls. It’s really the only way to monitor bats and get a handle on the species that may be in an area.

This is not as user friendly as a Shazam app, but it is indeed a useful tool to help you learn your bird songs. And I hate to use all caps here but I feel this is really important:

THIS IS NOT AN APP YOU CAN BLUNDER YOUR WAY THROUGH. YOU MUST READ THE DIRECTIONS OR WATCH THE YOUTUBE TUTORIAL before you start to truly understand how it works and how to use it in the field. 

What the Song Sleuth looks like in recording mode. The key to using this app is understanding the spectrogram of the bird songs. 

What the Song Sleuth looks like in recording mode. The key to using this app is understanding the spectrogram of the bird songs. 

This app is very cool for recording calls. When you have the app open in recording mode, the mic is always on and recording, but not saving everything. If you suddenly hear a bird start to sing that you want to identify and hit the record button, it will automatically default the start of the recording to the three seconds before you hit the record button. As you record, you’ll se the spectrogram of sounds from the song you are trying to id as well as your own noises from walking or coughing and ambient noise like planes.

After you have captured the recording, the app will generate three possible species that made the sound. It's best to try and trim the recording down to the actual song you want to id. If you use the whole recording and there are other birds singing, chances are good that you'll get a misidentification. 

The Song Sleuth app brings up a list of three possible identifications to your recording. You'll note the app brings up humans as a possibility. It also includes some frog and squirrel species which is pretty cool considering how many people mistake mammals and frogs for birds sounds. 

The Song Sleuth app brings up a list of three possible identifications to your recording. You'll note the app brings up humans as a possibility. It also includes some frog and squirrel species which is pretty cool considering how many people mistake mammals and frogs for birds sounds. 

When Song Sleuth brings up the list of possibilities you can either agree or disagree with it. If you aren't sure, you can listen to the preloaded calls to compare to your recording. You can even compare spectrograms of the prerecorded calls to the ones you captured. If the app brings up the incorrect identification, you can go into the full list of birds in the app to try and find it. 

I played around with this app with sounds from the All About Birds site and with bird calls in my local patch. Let me tell ya, trying to find singing birds in a Minnesota winter is not that easy. I had mixed results with the app. I would say about 60% of the time it nailed the id, especially if I trimmed down the recording and try to filter out wind. But 40% of the time the bird I was trying to id wasn't on the list. Part of it was disagreement with the app about what birds occur in Minnesota in winter. We have an influx of tufted titmice in the Twin Cities this year and the app didn't think they should be here so never considered the bird a possibility. I had to go in and manually include in the list of possible birds. 

But I do love that this app gets you into a habit of visualizing bird sounds on a spectrogram. I think that visual clues are very handy for someone just starting out and you'll be surprised to see the distinct vocal patterns birds can have, even with an accent. I also love that this app lets you record calls and even if it doesn't get the correct id right away, you have something you can take home and compare with bird sounds online. I played with this on an iPhone 7 and was able to pick up bird and squirrel sounds from far away. Ideally, you want to be as close as possible to get the call, but considering the size of the microphone on an iPhone it does a decent job. 

I also think that over time the app will improve as more people start to use it. To get an idea of how it works, check out the video on how to use the app. It's not a perfect app, but if you are struggling to learn your bird calls, I do think it's worthwhile to download. 

The Magic Of Finding Owls

We're having our third straight weird winter in Minnesota. A third winter of unpredictable weather patters. February used to be my guaranteed snow shoe hike month and for the past three winters I've had to just call them hikes or cancel them because thaw cycles of turned the trails to ice. This past week like the rest of the country we experienced insane highs in the 50s - 60.

I'm not going to panic about it, but I am going to take advantage of a weird spring like day to go bike riding, it's one of the things I enjoy almost as much as birding. And it's a perfect combo when I can combine them both. I often listen to movie soundtracks while biking to make my ride more fun. 

The other day I was biking and listening to The Force Awakens, specifically the Jedi Steps part at the end of the movie. As I biked along, something suddenly got my attention. "Wow, that's a lot of poop."

Look at all those pellets!

Look at all those pellets!

Because it was a thick clump of cedars I immediately assumed it was a saw-whet owl roost. I noticed about four spots where the bird had spent lots of time and dropped lots of pellets. I gingerly walked around to try and look up in hopes of not flushing the bird (with that ruddy mysterious music playing through my headphones). The first two spots had no owl above, then I got to the spot in the above photo. I looked up and less than two feet from my head was an old robin's nest with a gray phase eastern screech-owl perched on it (just as the music swelled when it revealed Luke Skywalker in the movie). I immediately said, "Holy shit," crouched low to put as much space between us and backed away, hoping against hope that I wouldn't accidentally flush it. I was not expecting that bird to be that low...or in a robin's nest. It stayed in its spot and I wondered if felt a little bad ass, "Well, I showed that human!"

The next day I took Non Birding Bill with me to see the bird and try to digiscope it. The branch it chose is perfect for hiding. It's on the lowest and thickest branch and the branch curves, creating a tent over the owl. I flattened my tripod as low as it would go, crawling on the ground to get a view as far away from the owl as I could. I found one window through the needles to get a glimpse and snapped a few photos for my own documentation.

This owl maybe low, but it has figured out a great hiding spot. 

This owl maybe low, but it has figured out a great hiding spot. 

I've never found a screech-owl roosting in cedars in winter. I've mostly seen them in natural cavities or nest boxes. And as always when I find an owl, I wonder how many I've passed because I assumed they wouldn't hide in a particular spot. 

I like this photo because the owl turned away from me. It no longer saw me as threat enough to stare down. All in all we were there three minutes getting pictures and grabbing a few more pellets. 

I like this photo because the owl turned away from me. It no longer saw me as threat enough to stare down. All in all we were there three minutes getting pictures and grabbing a few more pellets. 

And for now this owl will be left alone. If it stays warm I'll bike past but I won't stop except to collect a pellet or two. I'm going to have try and hit that area in March at dusk to see if I can hear any screech-owl trilling. 

Birdchick Podcast #219 Owl Drama and Birding Apps

The owl drama is intense this month on social media. You can follow the hashtag #owlmasterbaiters on Facebook to following along. 

Funny caracara story and terrible caracara movie

Lawsuit in New York to protect threatened piping plovers from non native feral cats

Oh hey, it's a great blue heron eating an alligator

New apps out there including Merlin which will ID your bird photos and Song Sleuth which cam help ID some bird songs. 

How To Look Like A Bad Ass Birder

Have you ever been out birding with your digiscoping kit or traditional camera equipment and wondered if there was an easier and more comfortable way to carry your camera and binoculars at the same time? Did you ever hope you'd look like a total bad ass while doing it? Well, I have three words for you: Tactical Birding Harness. 

Actually the real name is the CCS Binocular & Camera Harness and as soon as you put it on, you feel ready for what my friend Ben Douglas would call "beast mode birding."

The CCS Binocular and Camera Harness from Cotton Carrier. 

The CCS Binocular and Camera Harness from Cotton Carrier

Initially, I was skeptical about this harness on two fronts. First, I'm female and I'm a well endowed. Though I enjoy using binoculars harnesses for comfort, it can be a challenge to get those to work around a curvy chest. Many of these products are built for guys and well, the products get weird when applied to a woman's body. 

Image of a guy using the Binocular and Camera Harness from the Cotton Carrier website. 

Image of a guy using the Binocular and Camera Harness from the Cotton Carrier website. 

The second concern is that I had is that I have a low center of gravity and I wondered if having this stuff hanging on me was really going to be anymore comfortable than my usual set up of a traditional binocular harness with my camera slung over my shoulder while carrying my scope on a tripod. 

Me wearing the binocular and camera harness. 

Me wearing the binocular and camera harness. 

To my surprise, the tactical harness can be quite comfortable. As soon as I put it on, I felt a bit like Bruce Wayne suiting up for a night with the Joker. Being short, I had to do a lot of cinching of the shoulder straps, but once I got the harness snug against me, it wasn't bad at all. The fitting of this harness is really key (and gents, you may want to skip to the next paragraph as I'm going to get into some serious boob talk here). Ladies, if you leave it slightly loose, the harness shifts a bit as you move and then you're left with that look many of us dread: one of your breasts is randomly hanging out on the side. Don't make it so tight it hurts to breath, but have someone help you tighten it on the shoulders and the waist to keep in in place. 

Once fitted well, it doesn't move as much as a traditional binocular harness. Many women tell me that they find the traditional binocular harnesses uncomfortable. I think one reason is that people don't pay attention to where the leather patch is in the back. Sometimes it has a tendency to ride up just below your neck, when really it should be squarely between your shoulder blades and depending on how active you are in the field, you periodically have to pull it down. This harness stays in place for the post part when snug. 

You'll note there are straps with clips to help secure your camera and binoculars to the vest should they become dislodged from the vest, preventing them from dropping to the ground. I like how the binoculars are flat against the chest and don't flop around. I'm using 8x32 ELs which are compact and lightweight, it might be a different story with larger barrel binos.

You'll note there are straps with clips to help secure your camera and binoculars to the vest should they become dislodged from the vest, preventing them from dropping to the ground. I like how the binoculars are flat against the chest and don't flop around. I'm using 8x32 ELs which are compact and lightweight, it might be a different story with larger barrel binos.

The  harness comes with adapters to attach to the bottom of your camera and around the barrel of your binoculars. The washer has arrows that when aligned correctly will secure your optics to your harness. 

The  harness comes with adapters to attach to the bottom of your camera and around the barrel of your binoculars. The washer has arrows that when aligned correctly will secure your optics to your harness. 

The harness has an adapter and velcro strap to attach to the barrel of your binoculars and a tripod adaptor for your camera. These have large washers that will lock your optics in place on the front of the harness, and off to the side (you can adjust whether you have the second piece on your right or left to favor which side you use most). I did notice that after awhile the velcro strap on my Swarovski ELs would come loose and slide a little bit and I'd have to retighten it to keep it aligned with the harness.

I also  had to get used to my binoculars and camera in a new area. If you've had your digiscopign set up for awhile, using them has become second nature. This is a bit of a different configuration and it takes some getting used to the different way you have to holster holster and reholster your bins, especially if you're excitedly looking at a bird.   Here's a demo of the binoculars being holstered:

A small pocket in the belt holds a cover to put over camera to keep them dry if it's raining while you're out in the field. There's even a holder just inside the front of the harness in case you have an umbrella with a thin rod that you want to put over yourself to stay dry. Just wearing the whole set up around for an hour was not bad and the best part was that my binoculars and camera felt secure and not like they were bouncing all over the place.  This is something I might use while at a birding festival or birding remote areas. I wish I had this back when I was doing bird surveys. I'm not sure if I would wear this set up in an urban park, it might be a bit much and cause neighbors to question you. But if you are going to wear it in an urban park, go big or go home:

The harness accessorizes well with a Batman Cowl. 

The harness accessorizes well with a Batman Cowl.