Two in the Bush – Field Recording Birds in Damascus, Virginia

This month we are staying in a rural location near Damascus, Virginia. This is the farthest south in Old Dominion we’ve ventured. Known as “Trail Town USA”, Damascus, Virginia is famous for the three major trails that can be accessed from the town’s main street. We are staying across the street from the Creeper Trail, but the Appalachian Trail, Iron Mountain Trail, and many others are right nearby.

On our first morning here we went out to scout for sounds to field record and soon realized we had another field recording opportunity involving birds right outside our door in Virginia.

You May Have Noticed We Like to Build Rigs

This time we built a field recording rig that would (theoretically) record two locations and capture video so we could identify the birds we were recording. I took our trusty tripod and mounted the Tascam Portacapture X8 using a smartphone bracket, this left the 1/4-20 female thread on the bottom of the Portacapture open. Then we attached a portable power bank to it. We had picked up a crab clamp with a 1/4″-20 thread screw a few months earlier.

Since we wanted to record a baited area over a long period of time, we attached another smartphone bracket to the crab clamp to hold the portable power bank and attached the clamp to the tripod. The portable power bank ensures the recorder stays running throughout the field recording.

Next, we attached the shotgun mic’s mount to that thread on the bottom of the recorder using a 1/4-20 camera screw and plugged it into the recorder. Now we can capture both XY stereo and mono recordings at 192kHz-32bit quality.

Phase one was setting up the rig and putting it outside to let the birds get used to its presence. Next, we needed to convince the birds to get close enough to it for us to capture individual bird calls and songs.

Now Back to the Birds

We picked up some bird seed in Damascus, filled a bird feeder, baited a nearby tree stump, and sat back in front of a big window to watch. The area came alive with the flutter of wings. We had Blue Jays, some sort of woodpecker, a crow? Or, wait, was that a raven? I think that might be a Junco. What’s that one? That’s a cardinal, but is that a Titmouse or a Nuthatch? Is there a difference between the birds from New York and the ones in Virginia? Now we had all the birds, but we didn’t know what kind of birds. How are we going to learn to identify all these birds in the short amount of time we have to do it?

Cornell to the rescue

A quick internet search revealed a mobile app called Merlin. Developed by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Merlin is a bird id tool that helps you identify birds through pictures, a walk-through menu that uses geographic location, time of year, size, and color data, and yes, even sound. Using the app we were able to narrow down to the birds that are common in Damascus, Virginia.

Identify Bird Songs and Calls
Sound ID listens to the birds around you and shows real-time suggestions for who’s singing. Compare your recording to the songs and calls in Merlin to confirm what you heard. Available for birds in the US, Canada, Europe, and common birds of Central and South America. More species and regions coming soon. 

Don’t believe your eyes

Using Merlin with our sound recordings helped us identify 18 different bird species. Eighteen? But I only saw five. By carefully going through the audio file in the app and comparing it to the data available about each bird, such as habitat, we were able to narrow that list down to 14. But 14 is still more than we remembered seeing. We reloaded the feeders, turned on the gear, and then spent an entire day watching out the window. We found our missing birds. It turns out that while that eye-catching Blue Jay is grabbing your attention, the little Carolina Wren that built its nest in the hole in the barn is darting out to grab seeds from the other feeder. While I was enamored by the antics of the adorable Tufted Titmouse I missed the Bluebird calling from the fence. What my untrained eye couldn’t see, my microphone was capturing.

Go listen to Some Birds

A female cardinal stops by for a snack.

You don’t need to engage in field recording or travel to Old Dominion to spend time listening to birds. In fact, the Merlin app will help you identify your new friends using just the recorder on your smartphone.

We will be in Damascus, Virginia until the end of February and our mission is to get as many clean recordings of these different birds as possible, especially that elusive Raven. Not to mention the gaggle of squirrels, a herd of cows, a couple of horses, a donkey, and one relentless rooster. Using the Merlin app will help us identify and tag each sound file so the sound designers that download the files can accurately recreate the settings and scenes they need.

Field recording
Field recording is the term used for an audio recording produced outside a recording studio, and the term applies to recordings of both natural and human-produced

Virginia, officially the Commonwealth of Virginia, is a state in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern regions of the United States, between the Atlantic

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