Category Archives: Birding by ear

Native nursery birding and planting

Yesterday I had the opportunity to join my friends Josiah Clark and Brian Turner and head up to Josiah and Andrew Scavullo’s native plant nursery in Penngrove, CA (Sonoma County).  Josiah and Andrew grow an incredible array of native SF Bay Area plants, and are responsible for raising a lot of plants that have now taken root as part of local habitat restoration projects.

I tagged along to help out with some vegetable garden planting, but I also took a moment to check out the birds.  Sorry for the absence of photos, but my constantly muddy hands deterred me from handling my phone.  I did, however, take a moment at the end to record a few calls.

A White-tailed Kite worked over nearby field, while White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows occasional erupted in song.  Tree Swallows meticulously inspected nesting boxes in preparation for breeding, and a few Northern Rough-winged Swallows even dropped by to perch for a while.


For bonus points, feel free to point out the other birds in the background of this recording.


As the sun started to fall, another creature serenaded us.  Here are the sweet songs of Pacific tree frogs (Pseudacris regilla), emanating from a wet depression.

Santa Cruz mountains, and a bird song quiz

This morning (April 3rd), I birded Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve, in the Santa Cruz mountains.  My goals were threefold: figure out the quickest route to traverse the array of habitats for a biking big day, identify territories of some tricky birds like Red-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatch, and try out my new parabolic microphone.  Success on all fronts!

This spring Josiah Clark, Logan Kahle, Andy Kleinhesselink, and I will be attempting to set a new national record for a green big day.  We currently hold the record at 181 species, tied with Ron Weeks and Jon Hale on a Texas big day.  200 is possible, with the right magic and a lot of riding!  Since we’ll probably be starting at Skyline Ridge, I want to know every inch of the preserve and get the know the birds personally.  As luck would have it, both Red-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatches were around this morning, though they switched locations with each other from the last time I found them!

A horrible photo of a lovely Canyon Live Oak.  No nuthatches here, but plenty of Oak Titmice!

A horrible photo of a lovely Canyon Live Oak. No nuthatches here, but plenty of Oak Titmice!

I also recently bought a plastic parabolic dish, and used it to set up a recording system.  It works!  I generally focused on making recordings of single singing birds, but I also once panned across some chaparral to record the whole soundscape.  How many (and which) species are singing or calling in this clip?  Comment and let me know!

Springtime birding practice

In the SF Bay Area right now, hormones are raging, songs are exploding from every thicket, and every third bird seems to be carrying nesting material as it sneaks past.  I love birding at any level of intensity, but I do enjoy continuing to hone the craft and sharpen my skills of observation and inference.  Here are three challenges that I’ve been enjoying this spring.

  • Find a nest.  As you observe the birds, think about them as individuals, and ask what they are doing and why.  If you find a local bird carrying nesting material or food, extended observation will often show where they are nesting.  DO NOT AGITATE THE BIRDS OR APPROACH THE NEST TOO CLOSELY.  Causing nest failure would be a true shame.  If the bird appears agitated or is calling incessantly around you as you near the nest, back off.
  • Learn a bird’s repertoire.  Do you have a local wren or sparrow singing?  Does its song sound the same every time, or does it mix things up?  How many different elements are there (e.g. a buzzy part, a high whistle, a descending wheeze, a long trill)?  What shorter calls does it make?  Take notes on a single individual and really get to know it.
  • Identify habitat features.  For an abundant bird in your neighborhood, note the location of individuals.  Are there any common features that explain their presence?  Why are they absent from other spots?  For example, what tree species are the preferred perches of singing American Goldfinches?

If you do any of these exercises, let us know in the comments.  We can’t wait to hear what you’re learning (and share more of what we’re learning).