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How to memorize and recognise bird songs

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Old Thursday 10th May 2018, 18:17   #1
Herona
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How to memorize and recognise bird songs

Back from yet another wonderful birding trip to Mallorca, I have decided I want to not only take photographs but also recognise which birds are singing.
In Mallorca I tried to memorise the bee eaters song (dl from wikipedia). I listened to it at least 10-15 times in the course of 3 days. I also tried to compare the song to something I know. So I thought it sounds a bit like jodelling. Then I actually saw a group of bee-eaters at Son Bosc and heard them, too. It just sounded nothing like I'd have recognised. The only birds I do recognise are blackbirds and sparrows as I've seen and heard them often.
Why can't they all have a distinct call like say a kookoo?

Anyway, long story short: Is there some "trick" that you recognise birds by their songs? What would you recommend for me to do to successfully determine a bird by its song?
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Old Thursday 10th May 2018, 19:56   #2
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I actually believe that some people have a natural gift and they tend to be those of a musical inclination.

I'm useless, it often taked ages for me to recognise the call of a bird that should be second nature, I still can't tell Blackcap from Garden Warbler!



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Old Thursday 10th May 2018, 20:49   #3
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Hi,
I am a bit confused what you mean by 'song' of Bee-eater, since they don't sing much - they just call.

I once played with writing a bird guide. This is the section about bird sounds, which you may find useful.

BIRD SOUNDS
Experienced birder listens to birds much more than looks for them. Even species which are easy to see become more common after one learns their call. Many species normally identified by sight, like raptors, have also diagnostic calls.
Most people learn calls much slower than bird appearance. Don't be discouraged by it. Best method is listening to recordings. Nowadays, most common method is finding bird sounds online on websites like xeno-canto. CDs are also widely available. Many birders carry such a set on their smatphone for handy reference in the field. If you want to learn songs at home, recommended method is to listen constantly using 'shuffle' option, so sounds of different species come randomly.

- IDENTIFYING BIRD SONGS
Describe bird call in words. Translating call to human sounds is not enough. Was it long or short? Low or high? Sharp or mellow? Ascending or descending? How many syllabes? Was tempo fast or slow?
In long, complex songs concentrate on general overview. How long is the song – few sounds or few long strophes?
Are any features characteristic, e.g. louder trills or characteristic introduction? Does it include series of repeated sounds or shuffles up and down? How is tone of voice - high, low, fluting, sharp? How is the speed - slow or fast, thoughtful or hurrying? Are sounds spaced or well joined together? How the general melody goes – you can draw lines going up and down as the song rises and falls.
Some people learn call by quite different method. They learn general tone of the species and pick characteristic phrases and sounds. I think the first method is better.

Accept that most bird calls cannot be well translated into sounds of human voice. This especially concerns harsh and nasal sounds, which can be rendered equally well, or equally imperfectly, as very different words. The same call of Corncrake can be: crex-crex!, errp-errp or krrt-krrt. High whistles are also problematic, because highest vowel is ''i', so rendering e.g. modulated whistles of Goldcrest one runs out of wovels.

Sound changes with distance. It is selectively muffled by air and vegetation. At few meters, song has lots of details, and often is sharp and extremely loud. Tapes recorded in perfect conditons usually sound quite different from normal field impression. Tone of voice is especially suspectible to change. Far away, often only some trills or parts of song become prominent. Examples are final trills of songs of Willow Warbler and Thrush Nightingale.

- VOICE TRANSCRIPTIONS
Reading written description, despite its subjectivity, is still most common in the field. Don’t expect your impression
to exactly match letter translation (see above).

- TIPS TO SOUND IDENTIFICATION
Learning calls, remember that many similar variants of song and, to lesser extent, other calls exist within one species. Calls are often also clearly different geographically, so observer travelling e.g. from W to E Europe will note, that common birds call slightly different.

Some bird calls are famous for impossibility to judge distance to the bird. Example is Spotted Crake, which sounds exactly the same from 30 and 300 meters. The trick is to walk several meters to the side. Note how the direction of the sound changed. Draw two imaginary lines from your first and second standing place. The bird is at the intersection. This may save you long trashing through the bushes or marsh.

Voice recording can be used to attract birds. I strongly advise to do it with extreme care, and not at all to rare birds and in regularly bird-watched places. Birds easily become disturbed, scared or confused by phantom competitor or flock-mates. As a rule - never do it to one bird more than several times in one season. Think how many other people will do it before and after you.

- RECORDING VOICES AND SONOGRAMS
Recording heard birds becomes recently more common, using parabolic microphones and software to visualize sound as sonogram. This allowed e.g. identifying overflying vagrant passerines only by recording, or recognizing vocal races of crossbills, which might evolve as visually unrecognizable species.

Sonograms are too confusing to most beginners, but other birders find them perfect. Every detail of the sound shows in these “whizzy lines” – tiny differences in length and height of different sounds. Visible is also amount of harmonic tones - they look like smear or stacked lines and mean unclear, nasal or scratching voice.

- WHAT THE BIRD SOUNDS MEAN
Simple call, or contact call, is used mostly to identify bird presence. Often feeding flock utters additional flock calls, and birds flying high have different flight call.
Song or mating call attracts the female and defends territory. Latter is often primary function, so females or wintering birds of some species also sing. Woodpeckers drum on resonating branch for the same purpose.
Sub-song resembles mixed-up fragments of the proper song uttered quietly by feeding or resting bird. Its function is not well known and may be practice or pleasure.
Alarm call is usually different. For birder, in is often an additional warning that bird becomes uncomfortable and will flee. Sometimes alarm call betrays nearby raptor, owl, skua etc. Many birds mob, or harass, predator from the safe distance.
Young begging for food have specific call. Many other call types exist (often over 20 per species) but had to be omitted due to lack of space.
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Old Thursday 10th May 2018, 22:51   #4
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Hi,

Quote:
Originally Posted by Herona View Post
Anyway, long story short: Is there some "trick" that you recognise birds by their songs? What would you recommend for me to do to successfully determine a bird by its song?
I believe it's a learned skill, so there should be techniques. I felt I had no talent at bird song recognition at all, yet I'm quite confident in my skills now when it comes to quite a number of song and calls I'm familiar with.

Unlike Jurek, whom I greatly respect, I don't think listening to recordings is particularly useful for a beginner. When their usefulness was discussed on a German forum quite a while back, a lot of people agreed that the recordings hadn't worked for them either.

I haven't tried or discussed Jurek's method of verbalizing bird song aspects yet, but a similar approach quite well for me as an aid in visual recognition, so it sounds good to me. The difficulty might be that in the beginning, you won't have a clear idea what to listen for and how to describe it.

Here my thoughts on technique:

- From the German forum: The brain usually learns bird song recognition very well if you find the bird in the field, identify it visually, and listen to the song. (Partially because in many cases, that's easier said than done, and if you manage to do it, it creates a memorable light-bulb effect.)

- From the German forum: Start learning birds voices in spring, when only a few species are singing and the situation is not so confusing yet.

- My own thought: Start by concentrating on rhythm. I believe it's a more robust characteristic than the melody.

- Don't try to learn to recognize complex songs at first. Try to recognize the songs of birds with simple songs and limited repertoire. Even that was hard for me at first, but I learned what to listen for in the process.

- If you can, go birding with someone who is good at identifying bird voices. Don't let the expert do it for you, but rather ask him/her to confirm your identifications. You'll reach the point where you'll do fine with the easier ones, and if you hear something you're sure you don't recognize, ask the expert for the identification. (I presume that at that point, you'll have a fair idea of what to listen for so that the information will actually help you.)

- In complex bird song, listen for key sequences. These are often pointed out by field guides.

- The letter transcriptions of bird song in field guides might seem totally nonsensical at first. They are actually useful: If you have to decide if the bird you have seen is one of two difficult to distinguish species, you can use the song or call you heard to match it against the transcription.

- Since Jurek mentioned it as part of the "second method": I wouldn't deliberately try to learn to recognize the "general tone" of any species. I believe that some ability of this type will gradually develop as the side effect of developing your identification skills.

- Try sonagrams, they're fun. No need to read up on the background, just run a real-time sonagram app on your smartphone and look at the display while you're talking, singing, whistling, making noises, or listening to music. The app will turn the sound into pictures, some of them quite nicely structured, and you'll quickly find out whether you like this kind of tool or not.

Regards,

Henning
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Old Friday 11th May 2018, 00:43   #5
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I generally find it easiest to first categorize the songs, such as trills or warbles, and then use on or two as a standard, and merely memorize the rest based on the first (Ex. Faster than a Yellow-rumped Warbler, higher than a Blackpoll Warbler).
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Old Friday 11th May 2018, 07:23   #6
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I generally find it easiest to first categorize the songs, such as trills or warbles, and then use on or two as a standard, and merely memorize the rest based on the first (Ex. Faster than a Yellow-rumped Warbler, higher than a Blackpoll Warbler).

This is just like the first step in visual ID, problems come for me when there are numerous birds in a single family that sound similar, Warblers are a good example in Europe.

In fact, many people find 'good' birds by following up on a song or call they aren't familiar with.



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Old Friday 11th May 2018, 09:40   #7
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I am, by any means, not a great listener of bird sounds per se but I'd suggest you to tried to assimilated the visualization of the song/call while listening to it. By observing the quality of the sound -- how thick or thin, mean frequency, sound's pattern, tempo etc. of each species through sonogram. With some practices you will recognize the difference between family or even genus by the aid of your eyes.
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Old Friday 11th May 2018, 12:12   #8
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WOW! That's a lot of useful information and great tips! Thanks a lot, guys.
See, jurek, I didn't even think of the difference between a bird's call as opposed to a bird's song (I hope, no nightingale is seeing this. :p). Thanks for describing the differences andthings in common. I find this very helpful. I'm just such a beginner.

Henning, a ton of great information, danke dir! I'll check out the German forums for sure and you're right: I'm already checking out birds songs here at home. What I am doing currently: I am trying to take pictures of all the birds around my home, not considering quality but identifying the bird. Then I look up the sounds. Green finches and golden finches so far.

It probably doesn't help that I'm primarily more a visual person rather than an auditive one, so the sonagramm sounds like a book that's closed to me. Nevertheless, from all the suggestions here, I will find the method that works for me. Thanks a bunch, everybody!

PS: One thing I have learnt from bird watching is patience and I guess, this is what is required here as well. Just with myself

Chirpchirp!
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Old Friday 11th May 2018, 12:34   #9
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I think some birders are innately better at remembering songs than others, but I think most or all birders can improve their abilities to remember song.

I don't consider myself very good at remembering songs, but there are three techniques that have helped me to remember almost all of the songs in my area (calls are more challenging though):

1. Using verbal mnemonics to remember certain songs. These are often mentioned in field guides.

2. In North America, there is a series of “birding by ear” CDs by the publishers of Peterson Field guides. These group songs by type, and discuss the song and various ways to recall them, while playing them repeatedly. I play these CDs repeatedly while driving in the car, and they have been a great help. I don't know if there is something similar for Europe.

3. While I don't find simply repeatedly listening to a song to be very helpful in memorizing it, I think developing a quiz based on recorded playback can be quite helpful. That is, playing the song first, guessing at the identity, and then having that confirmed or disconfirmed by having the answer revealed. Some birding software or websites will create such quizzes for you automatically. Or you can try to create one yourself.
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Old Saturday 12th May 2018, 00:18   #10
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Originally Posted by Hauksen View Post
- From the German forum: The brain usually learns bird song recognition very well if you find the bird in the field, identify it visually, and listen to the song. (Partially because in many cases, that's easier said than done, and if you manage to do it, it creates a memorable light-bulb effect.)
Like most people who started birding before the time of portable sound players and when any bird recordings were hard to get, I learned local bird sounds this way. However, as Hauksen pointed, it is often very slow or impossible to find the singing bird. Especially that novices are inexperienced in finding birds hidden in vegetation, too! This is a very good way, but very slow. When I travel to remote parts of the world and I am again a novice, surrounded by many unknown bird sounds, this would not get me far.

Perhaps I omitted the obvious part, so.

1. Get a bird book or a bird app and actually read bird song descriptions and their pointers. They are written for a purpose.

In Europe, the standard is Collins Bird Guide, which also exists as an app. Second would be Lars Jonssson's book, to have two different descriptions of one sound. BTW, Collins has some bird calls wrong, but this does not concern the common songbirds. You will learn identification points, for example Chaffinchs high and low ending, Wood Warblers accelerating twitter, or Redstarts start with one tone followed by a series of louder level tones.

2. Listen to recordings and find these identifying points in the recording. This way you also become familiar with listening to new birds.

3. In the field, play the sound to compare it to the reality (Do it quietly or in the earphones! Don't call the birds, this is very disturbing to them!).

4. Then describe the song in words, and even better, write this down. For a beginner it is much more memory-efficient to remember few words than a complex sound. I heard there is a small minority of people with a musical ear who very easily memorize bird songs, but I have not met any.

5. By listening to the sounds at home, and by playing it randomly back to you, you will become familiar with bird sounds in general. So you may already narrow the unknown song in the field to several species only. Then you could check these with your recording (quietly, again!). So when I am in South America, I at least know that tinamous have all whistling sounds, hooting sound is usually some pigeon and so on. In Europe, squealing in the woods is a raptor or a woodpecker or a jay. Etc.

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Old Saturday 12th May 2018, 08:22   #11
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I'd recommend an iPhone app I've just discovered - Aves Vox. This acts as a gateway to the xeno-canto bird song database, which is a lot easier to use on a small phone than fiddling with the webpage. You can also categorise them into lists - I've just made a 'north east Europe' list for an upcoming trip, with the species that I might encounter but don't know by song, together with similar species I am familiar with for comparison (e.g. river warbler vs. grasshopper warbler).
Of course, I will endorse Jurek's point '3' - they're to use for ID purposes only not to lure / disturb the bird, using playback quietly or with headphones!

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Old Saturday 12th May 2018, 09:46   #12
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In Europe, the standard is Collins Bird Guide, which also exists as an app.
The quality of the recordings on the Collins app is really atrocious. Very poor sound quality and a lot of background noise, both environmental sound and other birds. At best it's distracting, and at worst you can hardly hear the intended call, much less learn to recognise it.
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Old Saturday 12th May 2018, 18:15   #13
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The quality of the recordings on the Collins app is really atrocious. Very poor sound quality and a lot of background noise, both environmental sound and other birds. At best it's distracting, and at worst you can hardly hear the intended call, much less learn to recognise it.
That's really useful to know as that was the main reason I was thinking of buying it. All things being equal I'd still rather look in a book, unless I have severe weight restrictions on my baggage.
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Old Saturday 12th May 2018, 21:18   #14
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That's really useful to know as that was the main reason I was thinking of buying it. All things being equal I'd still rather look in a book, unless I have severe weight restrictions on my baggage.
Overall I haven't been very impressed with the app (Android version). The plates/text from the book are reproduced in high quality so absolutely no problems there, but in terms of functionality/navigation etc. I think it's designed poorly.
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Old Saturday 12th May 2018, 21:29   #15
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The quality of the recordings on the Collins app is really atrocious. Very poor sound quality and a lot of background noise, both environmental sound and other birds. At best it's distracting, and at worst you can hardly hear the intended call, much less learn to recognise it.
For sounds themselves, I use Andreas Schulze, Karl H Dingler: Die Vogelstimmen Europas, Nordafrikas und Vorderasiens, 2 MP3-Discs: 819 Vogelarten.
https://www.amazon.de/Vogelstimmen-E...r+vogelstimmen

I am agnostic, and there can be better collections of European birds (this one is missing e.g. both snowcocks). However, for common European birds it is OK.

I use the Collins book for the descriptions and identification points. Cannot comment of quality of the app sounds, I don't use it. I think the app together with good samples of sounds would have to be much bigger than the current one.

Quote:
Originally Posted by kb57 View Post
I'd recommend an iPhone app I've just discovered - Aves Vox. This acts as a gateway to the xeno-canto bird song database, which is a lot easier to use on a small phone than fiddling with the webpage.
Another tip which I thought obvious. You cannot rely on internet access when birdwatching in the field, even quite close to big cities. All your information needs to be physically with you.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Hauksen View Post
If you can, go birding with someone who is good at identifying bird voices.
If you have a mentor, definitely go for it! Don't be afraid to ask what bird is singing there, and ask to point you some species when it will be heard nearby. However, for practical reasons, most of us must learn alone.

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Old Wednesday 16th May 2018, 22:18   #16
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I find that if I see the bird calling/singing that the call/song 'sticks' better in my mind, and the more often I see/hear the bird the better. However, that isn't helpful when trying to identify something I haven't seen before. There is a potential short-cut though - there are plenty of videos online of birds, some with singing/calling in them. Watch the videos and listen to the calls/songs. It's a means of gaining "experience" of the bird in advance (and also works for the visual side too - behaviour etc).
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Old Saturday 26th May 2018, 09:46   #17
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Just seen this thread, which is full of good advice. I particularly liked Henning's post (#4). I'll add one thing: be very patient. It doesn't usually come easy. It took me many years to distinguish gull calls, but, once learnt, it does stay in the memory. And yes, start learning in late winter, when few species are singing.
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Old Saturday 26th May 2018, 10:09   #18
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Originally Posted by Hauksen View Post
- From the German forum: The brain usually learns bird song recognition very well if you find the bird in the field, identify it visually, and listen to the song. (Partially because in many cases, that's easier said than done, and if you manage to do it, it creates a memorable light-bulb effect.)
This strikes a chord with me. When I started out birding I soon realised how important sounds are to successful birding. So, as boy I decided that when I hear a bird that I'm not sure of I just had to see it. In fact, I would put considerable effort into this, once following up a Coal Tit's call for ages and ages, till I saw the little chappy. This way the sound would really stick and I was gradually more and more confident until I was happy I knew all the sounds in my area. It really nelps to see the source of the sound and reinforces it in the memory.

Also, as stated, anything I didn't know would cause excitement as it would often be something new or unexpected - unless it was a Great Tit up to its tricks again of course - or fledglings giving provocative high pitched squeaks
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Old Tuesday 3rd July 2018, 12:13   #19
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This is a fun game that helps you identify bird sounds (and SEE them, too!) :)

https://academy.allaboutbirds.org/bird-song-hero/

And I agree with getting a visual of the bird singing to hold a stronger memory in your brain, it helps immensely. The other thing I do is I am constantly looking up birds that are well known in my area and listening to their various recordings over and over.
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Old Tuesday 3rd July 2018, 18:26   #20
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Like others who've posted here my aptitude for learning and, crucially, recalling bird vocalisations is poor. I find listening to recordings boring, struggle to lodge the calls in my brain and, I confess, often forget which darn bird I'm listening to! Watching a video of a bird in song so I have constant visual back-up really helps.
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Old Tuesday 3rd July 2018, 22:18   #21
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I actually believe that some people have a natural gift and they tend to be those of a musical inclination.
Can't always be true, I'm generally quite good on bird calls / songs (and yep, no probs with Blackcap & Garden Warbler), but I'm as musical as an alley cat
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Old Monday 16th July 2018, 18:02   #22
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For sounds themselves, I use Andreas Schulze, Karl H Dingler: Die Vogelstimmen Europas, Nordafrikas und Vorderasiens, 2 MP3-Discs: 819 Vogelarten.

https://www.amazon.de/Vogelstimmen-E...r+vogelstimmen
I transferred this voices via exact audio copy from CD to mobile.
So I defined finely Artic Warbler in Thailand.


Problem for me are birds which sounds very similar.

Is there any quiz in internet for training ?
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Old Monday 16th July 2018, 18:13   #23
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This is a fun game that helps you identify bird sounds (and SEE them, too!) :)

https://academy.allaboutbirds.org/bird-song-hero/

And I agree with getting a visual of the bird singing to hold a stronger memory in your brain, it helps immensely. The other thing I do is I am constantly looking up birds that are well known in my area and listening to their various recordings over and over.
The voice graphic helps to gess the voice, eventhough for voices which you never heard before !
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Old Monday 16th July 2018, 19:18   #24
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Is there any quiz in internet for training ?
https://www.birdid.no/bird/quiz/

You don't have to register/log-in. Just stick with training quizzes. You get to set country etc, number of questions, multiple choice, amount of time etc. I sometimes do the photo quizzes to pass some quiet times. Not as successful with the sounds yet.
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Old Tuesday 17th July 2018, 12:41   #25
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Aside from not being able to distinguish between black cap and garden warbler in addition to having the tonality of a brick there is also the problem for many of us of advancing middle age. My regular birding companion, who is infinitely better than me at birdsong and calls, could not even hear the Grasshopper warbler that was reeling away merrily in scrub not 10m from where we stood (still couldn't see the blighter but that another story). Personally I blame years of trying to get as close to the front as possible at various rock gigs in our youth.

Joking apart, as we age our hearing register decreases, with the higher frequencies the first to go. Add into this the aforementioned penchant for Black Sabbath and their ilk, occupational and other environmental noise exposure and it is hardly surprising that we sometimes have difficulty in distinguishing distant (and sometimes not so distant) birdsong as we get older.

Just to make matters worse of course, some birds have a wide variety of calls and are not averse to the occasional bit of mimicry.

I came across a free app british bird sounds ( I think it is by luminous apps) which I downloaded. its nothing special but is ok apart from relying on an 3g connection to work in the field. Like many such apps (Collins included) you have to have a rough idea first and then try and match by trial and error. Ideally an app where you can record the bird then let it come up with suitable suggestions would be best. Not sure if such a thing exists?
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Does anyone recognise this bird dropping?? Janshorty Birds & Birding 40 Wednesday 15th March 2006 08:49
Does can anybody recognise this bird? Richard Wiegold Birds & Birding 5 Tuesday 24th August 2004 14:12

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