Gökotta

Gökotta (n., Swed.)

“a dawn picnic to hear the first birdsong”; the act of rising in the early morning to watch the birds or to go outside to appreciate nature.


Notes:

  • Photo: DK – (Wet) Baby Blue Jay.  6:50 a.m., May 7, 2022. 50° F & Rain
  • Quote: Thank you The Hammock Papers

do not walk by without pausing to attend to this rather ridiculous performance

Oh do you have time
to linger
for just a little while
out of your busy

and very important day
for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles

for a musical battle,
to see who can sing
the highest note,
or the lowest,

or the most expressive of mirth,
or the most tender?
Their strong, blunt beaks
drink the air

as they strive
melodiously
not for your sake
and not for mine

and not for the sake of winning
but for sheer delight and gratitude –
believe us, they say,
it is a serious thing

just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.
I beg of you,

do not walk by
without pausing
to attend to this
rather ridiculous performance.

It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.

—  Mary Oliver, “Invitation” in  A Thousand Mornings (New York: Penguin Books, 2013).


Photo by Joshua J. Cotten of male goldfinch, Backyard, Cordova, TN, USA in October 2021 via unsplash

Shazam for bird songs

…Birds can be secretive creatures, staying high in the treetops or deep in the underbrush. Even those in plain sight often move startlingly quickly, appearing as hardly more than a flash of color, a blur of wings. Except for the background sound of birdsong, many people are never aware of how many birds — or how few — they share the world with.

Apps like iNaturalist from National Geographic and the California Academy of Sciences help to close that gap, functioning as both electronic field guides and vast data-collection devices. They learn as we learn, improving with every photo and map pin we upload, helping experts understand a planet undergoing profound change. But what of the vast number of birds we never see, those we only hear? To offer that feature — one that accurately and consistently recognizes birds by sound alone — would be the birding equivalent of finding the Holy Grail.

Identifying birds by their songs has always been difficult, for computers and humans alike. Every species of bird has a range of vocalizations, sometimes an immense range, and those vocalizations can have regional inflections, just as people speak with local accents. In some species, individual birds put a unique spin on their songs, too. A mockingbird is the avian equivalent of a jazz musician.

Last month, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology released an updated version of its Merlin Bird ID app, which allows users to identify birds by song. There are other voice-recognition apps for birds, but they are accurate barely 50 percent of the time. Though Merlin doesn’t claim to be 100 percent accurate, it comes very close. Drawing on a database of notes and recordings contributed by tens of thousands of citizen scientists through the Lab’s eBird initiative, Merlin listens as you listen, in real time, and tells you what you’re hearing. The app can identify some 400 North American species so far and will keep expanding. It’s an immense achievement, a quantum leap forward, nothing less than “a Shazam for bird songs,” as an article in Fast Company put it.

Naturally, I had to try out the new technology. I am far from an expert birder, but I do know my avian neighbors, and I figured a good way to test Merlin’s accuracy was to try it with birds I can already recognize by ear.

The first test didn’t bode well. I was reading on the sofa when I heard a Carolina wren singing just above my head. It was hopping around in a hanging basket barely a foot beyond the glass and singing its head off. That wren was as close as any bird was ever going to get, but the app was stumped. “Merlin has no matches,” it reported. Merlin fared no better in the two other recordings I made indoors.

But outside, something magical happened. I set my phone down on the table on my back deck, opened the Merlin app, chose “Sound ID” and hit the microphone button. Immediately a spectrogram of sound waves began to scroll across the screen. Every time a bird sings, the sound registers as a kind of picture of the song. By comparing that picture with others in its database, the app arrives at an ID.

I watched as Merlin rolled out the names of bird after bird — tufted titmouse, European starling, Carolina chickadee, northern cardinal, American crow, white-breasted nuthatch, eastern towhee, house wren, American goldfinch, blue jay, eastern bluebird, American robin, Carolina wren, house finch. It didn’t miss a single one.

What amazed me was not merely the accuracy of the ID but also the way the app untangled the layers of song, correctly identifying the birds that were singing in my yard, as well the birds that were singing next door and the birds that were singing across the street. If the same bird sang a second time, the app highlighted the name it had already listed. Watching those highlights play across the growing list of birds was almost like watching fingers fly across a piano keyboard.

Then I started seeing the names of birds I’d never seen in this yard before, birds that for me have existed only as undifferentiated sounds in the trees: Kentucky warbler, blue-gray gnatcatcher, yellow-breasted chat. The new bird I’d been hearing but not seeing all summer long, the one whose song sounded to me like, “Here, here, do you know my name?” turned out to be a magnificent summer tanager. Merlin also picked up the song of a yellow-throated warbler, a bird the app identified as uncommon for this area. I knew two were here because one of their babies fell out of a nest onto my son’s car — it was safely reared by the wildlife experts at Walden’s Puddle and released back into the wild — but I had never heard them sing. At least, I didn’t know what I was hearing when I heard them sing.

This enchanting app is aptly named. Watching those birds appear on my phone screen in response to the sound of their voices in the air was a kind of wizardry — like watching the notes of a song become visible, like having fairies or angels suddenly embodied before me. Merlin made me see what before I could only imagine.

—  Margaret Renkl, from “This ‘Shazam’ for Birds Could Help Save Them” (NY Times, July 26, 2021)


Photo: DK @ Cove Island Park. June 27, 2021

sound and silence moving through space and time, like music

For half a century, philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore has written about the natural world, her work shaped by the homes she’s made in Corvallis, Ore., and Chichaghof Island, Alaska. It’s also indebted to the conservationist and writer Rachel Carson (1907-1964), best known for “Silent Spring,” the landmark 1962 book in which she envisioned a world eerily hushed by pesticides. “I imagine,” Ms. Moore writes of Carson, “she called the book ‘Silent Spring’ . . . because it was the loss of the birds’ music that would grieve her the most.”

Ms. Moore adores birdsong, too, though in “Earth’s Wild Music: Celebrating and Defending the Songs of the Natural World” she details the threat of a broader quiet across the planet if humanity fails to heed warnings about the extinction crisis and other environmental challenges before us. “In the fifty years that I have been writing about nature,” she laments, “roughly 60 percent of all individual mammals have been erased from the face of the Earth. The total population of North American birds, the red-winged blackbirds and robins, has been cut by a third. Half of grassland birds have been lost. Butterflies and moths have declined by similar percentages. As individual numbers decrease, species are being lost, too. As many as one out of five species of organisms may be on the verge of extinction now, and twice that number could be lost by the end of the century.” […]

Ms. Moore considers the possibility of an even wider loss—the souring of seas, the withering of forests, and the wholesale disappearance of many kinds of life, which she regards as a form of spiritual impoverishment, too. “My nightmare is that before we lose the Earth’s life-sustaining systems, we will lose its soul-sustaining system—the Earth’s wild music,” she writes. […]

An abiding insight of “Earth’s Wild Music” is that to save the world, we must truly see and hear it. “How can we be fully alive,” she asks, “if we don’t pause to notice, and to celebrate, all the dimensions of our being, its length and its depth and its movement through time?” […]

“We, all of us—blue-green algae, galaxies, bear grass, philosophers, and clams—will someday dissipate into vibrating motes,” she writes. “In the end, all of natural creation is only sound and silence moving through space and time, like music.”

Danny Heitman, in a Book Review of Kathleen Dean Moore‘s “Earth’s Wild Music’ Review: Listening for Nature’s Melody” (wsj.com, January 27, 2021)


Photo: DK, Cove Island Park, January 31 2020, 6:51 am. 13° F.

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

Outside I could hear a spring robin, a melancholy sound more searching than song to me.

~ Jessica Francis Kane, Rules for Visiting 


Photo: Robin singing

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

“When it’s cold you can see the song.”

A blue tit appears to be sending smoke signals as it braves sub-zero temperatures in a park in the city of Petrozavodsk, Russia. Mikhail Kalinin, 34, an electric locomotive engineer spotted the chirping bird’s condensation rising up out from it’s beak with the temperature below -5 degrees celsius. (via Solent News & Photo Agency)


Photo: Mikhail Kalinin. Thank you Beth.

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