ASK THE EXPERTS ABOUT GEAR: SOUND RECORDING EQUIPMENT

The Ask the Experts feature of eBON gets expanded in this month’s issue and tackles birdwatching gear. In this issue the experts discuss sound recording equipment. Recorders and microphones are an often neglected pieces of birding kit that turn out to be especially important for birding in tropical countries like the Philippines.

WBCP member Randy Weisser asks this month’s birding gear question. The three bird experts consulted are:

    • Oriental bird specialist Desmond Allen
    • BirdTour Asia Director Robert Hutchinson
    • Bird guide and blogger Mark Villa

Randy Weisser asks:

I am interested in recording some of the bird calls to aid in identification.  I have searched online but I haven’t been able to find recommendations on affordable equipment and instructions on the best techniques for recording.  I am interested in the pros and cons and sources of small recorders.  Also, a recommendation and source for the little portable sound funnels.  Info on playback equipment and techniques would be helpful also. Hopefully, someone can provide info for beginning recorders on a tight budget.

From Desmond Allen:

Sound recording. Not a quick topic. What is affordable? You get what you pay for. I would buy off ebay. The important bit is the microphone. If you are intending to publish a beautiful CD of bird songs the recorder is also important; if not, a fairly cheap mp3 recorder will be fine to start with.

The best microphone is probably the Telinga with a dish http://www.telinga.com/ but it is hard to combine with binos and cameras. Otherwise buy one of the shotgun mikes. Sennheiser are good but cheaper ones are available from Rode and Audiotechnica, for example. For techniques and equipment: check out the yahoo naturerecordists group and its archive, http://www.xeno-canto.org/asia/ and also its facebook page. There is a lot of information out there on the web. But if you have a shotgun mike it is very easy to get a recording of some kind. All serious birders need sound recording equipment of some kind.

From Robert Hutchinson:

In many tropical areas of the world learning bird sounds is as useful to a birder as recognising what the birds look like, almost all forest birds can be identified by their song and most importantly very many are much easier to hear than to see. I would estimate that more than 75% of the birds I see in forest I have already located by sound first. By learning the calls and songs you can know that a particular species is present, what direction to look in and what distance you are from the bird…. all extremely useful for finding those tiny birds in big forests!  As new birders develop their skills and start to realise the importance of bird sounds they are often keen to make recordings of the sounds which are helpful in a number of ways.1)     The sounds can be recorded and the identity checked later against online resources such as XENO CANTO ASIA (http://www.xeno-canto.org/asia/) and if the identity is still unknown the sounds can be uploaded there for more experienced birders to try and help.

2)     By playing back the sound you have recorded, the bird making the sound with often come closer in response to the ‘playback’ to investigate the intruder in its territory. If used sparingly this causes the bird minimal disturbance and is a very useful way to tempt the birds to show themselves.

3)     Many questions as to whether birds are ‘species’ or ‘sub-species’ can be answered by difference in song and by making recordings of the huge variety of bird forms in the Philippines we can make a real contribution to science, taxonomy and conservation. For example no-one who has heard the three forms of ‘Slender-billed’ Crow discussed in the last e-BON will believe that they are the same species but since they look very similar it is likely to be sound recordings, often made by amateur birders like us, that result in their recognition as full species.There are many options available for making sound recordings and the revolution in digital recorders had made it much easier, my first recorder was a Sony TCM 5000 which recorded on cassettes, weighed a back-breaking 2 kg and it took many hours to search back through the cassettes to find specific recordings. In contrast my current recorder weighs just a few hundred grams and the sounds can be downloaded from the flash card to a laptop in minutes!

Any recorder designed for recording sounds (eg Dictaphones) can be used and many have reasonable built in microphones but these are only likely to be useful if the bird is very close. For good quality recordings you want to find a recorder that you can attach an external microphone to. I currently use a Roland Edirol R-05 (the R-09HR is similar) which is small and makes excellent recordings but has notorious poorly made microphone inputs so use with care. Many Olympus digital recorders are used by birders to good effect and the Sony PCM M10 gets great reviews from wildlife sound recordists and will probably be my next model.

The best and most popular microphone for bird sound recording is the Sennheiser K6 /ME66 which is very durable (mine is already 14 years old) and makes great sounds. These are not cheap and I’m sure there are many other directional, condenser microphones available that would do the same job, including the Sennheiser video microphones which are much cheaper and more compact but can still record good sounds.

From Mark Villa:

My suggestion in buying gear is always to buy the best you can afford. I use an Olympus LS-11 which has a built-in mic already and takes great recordings especially when the subject is near. There might be newer models now. Others have recommended Sony PCM-M10B. I might try that if I need to get a new recorder. It has a buffer cache which records about 5 seconds of the song before you press the record button which helps not to miss the beginning of a bird song. Often we press record just when the bird sings and it will be too late and we have missed the start of the bird song especially the case for some tailorbirds like Black-headed Tailorbirds or Yellow-breasted Tailorbirds which has an explosive start to its song and I don’t think I ever get to record that.

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