5:00 P.M. Bell! Happy Hour!


Hummy in Backyard. July 30, 2021. 5:05 pm.

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

More. More Birds.

In our pursuit of that elusive thing called happiness, scientists can offer few findings. One is that, contrary to popular belief, money can actually buy happiness. Another, more recent, is that so can birds… “According to our findings, the happiest Europeans are those who can experience numerous different bird species in their daily life, or who live in near-natural surroundings that are home to many species.” The social isolation necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic has pushed many people to escape into the outdoors and reconnect with nature. Research suggests that spending more time in nature and with animals can help people relax and even lessen physical and mental stress.  And the more birds, the better, according to the study, which analyzed data from the “2012 European quality of Life Survey” on life satisfaction in more than 26,000 adults from 26 European countries. A 10 percent increase in the number of bird species in peoples’ surroundings increased their life satisfaction as much as an extra 10 percent in the bank, the study found.

— Anagha Srikanth, from “New study finds birds give people as much happiness as money” (thehill.com, March 24, 2021)


Photo: DK @ Daybreak, 6:49 am. March 21, 2021, Norwalk, CT

Miracle. All of It.

My eyes graze his binoculars and without a word he passes them over. And like that the birds are no longer smudges, but elegantly detailed and purposeful and real. They steal my breath as they always do, these creatures who think nothing of having wings.

Charlotte McConaghyMigrations: A Novel (Flatiron Books, August 4, 2020)


Notes:

  • Photo: Cormorant. Spirit Bird. Sept 7, 2020. 6:48 am. The Cove. Stamford, FT
  • Back Story: Walking. In Search of my Spirit Bird.
  • Post title Inspired by Albert Einstein’s quote: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Walking. With the World all right again…

It’s been a month.  I first wrote about them in a post here: Walking. One Short. From Wing to Wing.

Each morning I look for them, and I just see her.  And the heart sinks a wee bit… Was he hurt? Predators? I shudder to think…

See her above. That’s yesterday morning. Alone. Head down. (And her Head is blurry. That’s not her tears. That’s the idiot photographer who still can’t get it right, but it’s the best shot of her that he had.)

For most of the last 30 days, she’s off on her own on the edges of The Cove, mostly sleeping. Grieving, I’m sure.

So, this morning, I’m off on my walk, expecting a replay.

I’m halfway on my 5-mile loop, and my eyes scan the water for the snow white coat.  [Read more…]

Lightly Child, Lightly

I worked at a falcon-breeding center. In one room were banks of expensive incubators containing falcon eggs. Through the glass, their shells were the mottled browns of walnut, of tea-stains, of onion skins…These were forced-air incubators with eggs on wire racks. We weighed them each day, and as the embryo moved towards hatching, we’d candle them: place them on a light and scribe the outline of the shadow against the bright air-cell with a soft graphite pencil, so that as the days passed the eggshell was ringed with repeated lines that resembled tides or wide-grained wood. But I always left the incubation room feeling unaccountably upset, with a vague disquieting sense of vertigo. It was a familiar emotion I couldn’t quite name. I finally worked out what it was on rainy Sunday afternoon. Leafing through my parents’ albums I found a photograph of me a few days after my birth, a frail and skinny thing, one arm rings with a medical bracelet and bathed in stark electric light. I was in an incubator, for I was exceedingly premature. My twin brother did not survive his birth. And that early loss, followed by weeks of white light lying alone on a blanket in a Perspex box, had done something to me that echoed with a room full of eggs in forced-air boxes, held in moist air and moved by wire. Now I could put a name to the upset I felt. It was loneliness.

That was when I recognised the particular power of eggs to raise questions of human hurt and harm. That was why, I realised, the nests in my childhood collection made me uncomfortable; they reached back to a time in my life when the world was nothing but surviving isolation. And then. And then there was a day. One day when, quite by surprise, I discovered that if I held a falcon egg close to my mouth and made soft clucking noises, a chick that was ready to hatch would call back. And there I stood, in the temperature-controlled room. I spoke through the shell to something that had not yet known light or air, but would soon take in the revealed coil and furl of a west-coast breeze and cloud of a hillside in one easy glide at sixty miles an hour, and spire up on sharp wings to soar high enough to see the distant, glittering Atlantic. I spoke through an egg and wept.

— Helen Macdonald, Vesper Flights (Grove Press, August 25, 2020) 


Notes:

  • Photo: Incubator
  • Post Title & Inspiration: Aldous Huxley: “It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.”

Sunday Morning (So Help Us God)

The Arctic tern has the longest migration of any animal. It flies from the Arctic all the way to the Antarctic, and then back again within a year. This is an extraordinarily long flight for a bird its size. And because the terns live to be thirty or so, the distance they will travel over the course of their lives is the equivalent of flying to the moon and back three times…

(They) ask questions about the birds. How do they know where to go? Why do they fly so far? Why are they the last, why these ones, what makes them luckier than the others? I don’t know the answers, not really, but I do my best and, anyway, it’s not really answers they want, it’s simply remembering what it feels like to love creatures that aren’t human. A nameless sadness, the fading away of the birds. The fading away of the animals. How lonely it will be here, when it’s just us.

Charlotte McConaghy, Migrations: A Novel (Flatiron Books, August 4, 2020)


Photo: Phil Gower of an Arctic Tern

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call


Source: Cherly Jong (Jakarta Pusat, Jakarta, Indonesia)

 

 

The word will get around

blue-jay-bird-feeder

I went out before breakfast
to fill the bird feeder.
So far only jays come,
but the word will get around.

~ May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude


Notes:

  • Photograph of female bluejay at bird feeder by Cyanocitta
  • Dec 23, 2015 forecast – a high of 54° F. Tomorrow’s forecast: high of 66° F

 

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