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Spotlight on Sound Recording

Ever since I was a kid growing up in New England I’ve loved listening to the sounds of birdlife—rapt by the rich symphony of a dawn chorus on a spring morning; alerted to the presence of a male Ovenbird somewhere on a sun-dappled forest floor by its stitching teacher-teacher-teacher; arrested in my tracks at the still-shattering call of a Pileated Woodpecker deep inside the phalanx of trees arrayed before me. I have also always been adept at mimicking them, discovering as a teenager how whistling a plaintive fee-bee at the woodland edge could bring in an excited band of Black-capped Chickadees or blowing into cupped hands could produce a near-perfect rendition of a Mourning Dove’s song. Later, when I became more active as a birder, I prided myself on my ability to identify nearly all of our local birds by voice alone. To my increasingly discerning ear, the dawn chorus became an intricately textured soundscape from which to tease out the individual strands. Developing this skill gave me a much deeper sense of connection with the birdlife around me just as learning another language makes you feel more connected to places where that language is spoken. Also being in tune with the sounds of birds clues you in on what’s happening in their world, which can enrich your birding experience and lead to interesting discoveries.

An early morning soundscape from Al Asfar Lake in Al Ahsa, Saudi Arabia, featuring Moustached Warbler, Graceful Prinia, Water Rail, Grey-headed Swamphen, Common Moorhen, Clamorous Reed Warbler, Little Egret, and Marsh Frog

In retrospect, given my early interest in bird vocalizations, it’s surprising I only more recently took up sound recording. I suppose I just assumed it was the domain of professional ornithologists with deep pockets, who could afford the expensive equipment required, not amateur birders like myself with appreciably shallower pockets. Moreover, weren’t there already ample audio recordings available—I’ve had the cassettes, the CDs, the downloadable MP3s, and more recently the multimedia-equipped apps covering virtually every North American and European species. There didn’t seem much reason to go down that path, well tread as I believed it to be. However, Abraham Arias de la Torre, a friend from the UAE, pointed out while we were birding the Asir Region of Saudi back in 2018 that there were in fact few, if any, audio recordings of many Arabian birds, particularly the endemic species. He wondered at the time why I didn’t record them and start making up for this lack. It was after that trip with Abraham that I took up the charge in earnest and became an avid, if still budding, sound recordist.

Over the past two years I've been able to record the three documented vocalizations of the Asir Magpie

Getting started was actually quite easy and didn’t require as much of an outlay as I imagined. I mean, ultimately, all you need is a recording device, and most everybody's already got one on them—their smart phone. The Voice Memos app on the iPhone, for example, can quickly and easily produce serviceable sound recordings while you’re out in the field. Not to mention, most digital cameras, like the Nikon and Canon bridge cameras I’ve carried with me over the years, have decent built-in microphones for recording audio when in video mode. If you shoot video of vocalizing birds, you can later isolate the audio in a program like QuickTime to create a suitable file for sharing with the Cornell Lab’s Macaulay Library or Xeno-Canto, a popular crowd-sourced database of bird vocalizations from around the world. There's also a whole range of inexpensive digital voice recorders you can get for little more than $50 USD that can produce a decent sound file, like the Sony I’ve also used in the past.

An audio recording of singing Yemen Thrush isolated from video footage

I discovered, however, that unless a bird was quite close and louder than everything else around it, the microphones on these devices would pick up many of the ambient sounds as well, which often led to a lot of interference. This can be cleaned up using an audio editing program like Audacity, but when I researched sound recording gear for birding specifically, it became clear this would be a lot of needless time-wasting. That’s when I decided I would have to invest in better equipment to get the kind of results I desired—nice, clean audio of my target birds that didn’t require a lot of post-processing.

A basic sound recording kit is composed of a digital sound recorder and a microphone. If you decide to upgrade to a device specifically for sound recording rather than using your smart phone, there's a range of options to consider depending on your budget and your needs. You can find decent portable sound recorders from companies like Zoom and Tascam for under $200 USD. I ultimately opted for the Zoom H1n recorder, whose size, capability, and price point were ideal for my needs. Since I frequently find myself hiking into birding spots with all my gear—binoculars, camera, and spotting scope—I wanted to go as compact as possible with my recording kit without sacrificing too much by way of quality. The Zoom H1n also allows me to capture recordings as either WAV or MP3 files and provides additional functionality, such as a low-cut filter, to help me achieve the results I want without too much additional post-processing.

The microphone most commonly used for recording birds sounds is a shotgun mic. These microphones are designed to allow you to zero in on a vocalizing bird and cut out ambient sounds not directly within the mic’s unidirectional pick-up pattern. There are a few compact shotgun mics on the market that work with smart phones and can help produce cleaner, more targeted audio recordings. Should you decide to purchase a microphone, I don’t advise you to go too cheap. My first shotgun mic was an Audio-Technica ATR 6550, which I got for a little over $80 USD. While I did manage to get some okay recordings, after a short time I noticed sharp crackling and popping sounds coming through my headphones while using the mic, which proceeded to worsen over the coming weeks. I discovered that the cable, which was fused to the mic's body and not replaceable, was failing. Further research led me to the Sennheiser MKE 600. While not the popular Sennheiser ME 67, which has been discontinued, the MKE 600 has a detachable cable for easy replacement and produces a much superior sound to the cheap Audio-Technica ATR 6550. However, a quality shotgun microphone will set you back no less than $350 USD. Should you find yourself bit by the bug, then, like me, you may decide it’s worth the expense. So far I've been very pleased with the performance of the MKE 600.

The spectrogram of a singing Moustached Warbler provides a visual representation of what a wild, freewheeling songster this reed-loving species is. Click play to check it out!

Looking back I have to thank my friend Abraham again for inspiring me to take up sound recording. To date, it's been a really gratifying endeavor, capturing audio of bird species for which there truly had been few, if any, in the past, such as Asir Magpie, Rufous-capped Lark, Olive-rumped Serin, as well as the Arabian subspecies of Harlequin Quail and African Pipit. By getting into sound recording yourself, you might help fill gaps in our knowledge of the region's birdlife as I did with my recent observations of Delicate Prinia in eastern Saudi Arabia, whose status in the country had been unknown up to that point. Documenting this record and separating this species from the similar Graceful Prinia entailed not only photographs featuring key field marks but also audio recordings for comparing the voices of the two. There are sure to be more opportunities to make similar contributions to avian science for those interested in becoming sound recordists in Saudi and the wider region.

The first audio recording of Delicate Prinia in Saudi Arabia

A spotlight in Xeno-Canto on one of my recordings of Yemen Thrush from southwest Saudi

In fact, one such opportunity has recently come to my attention, one in which all birders in the OSME region can take part. As the eBird reviewer for Saudi Arabia, I’ve been invited to help develop the sound ID model in the Cornell Lab's popular birding app—Merlin Bird ID—for the wider region by annotating spectrograms of audio files in the Macaulay Library's collection. A big takeaway from my recent training was that upwards to 100 spectrograms per species need to be annotated in order to most effectively “teach” the machines as it were. Let's take Graceful Prinia, a very common species in the Middle East, as an example—there are currently only 44 audio recordings for this species in the Macaulay Library. That means we'll need more than double that number to help ensure this species can be most accurately identified in Merlin Sound ID. Given how few sound recordists there are in the region, it may be some time before we can make up for this shortfall and birdwatchers can take full advantage of all the features in Cornell's powerful app. That is, unless more birders take up sound recording and upload audio files of the birds they're encountering in their area with their eBird checklists. These files will then be stored in the Macaulay Library and Cornell's team of eBird reviewers and expert volunteers will get to work on annotating them.

Developing the sound ID model in Merlin for the region entails volunteers annotating spectrograms as shown above

Once the Merlin Sound ID feature has been fully developed for the OSME region, not only will users be able to import prerecorded audio files, they will even be able to record vocalizing birds directly into the app and receive ID suggestions for what they’re hearing almost simultaneously. That coupled with Merlin's photo ID feature will go a long way in helping build interest in birdwatching, particularly among young people. Again, to do this, the Macaulay Library needs your help, so let's get out there recording!

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