In the Field: A Case Study

By Laura Kammermeier — Audubon Guides Blogger


Last spring, the advantages of a mobile field guide smacked me in the head!


Just after 6 am on a misty morning in mid-May, I traipsed through understory of a migrant hotspot with a field notebook and datasheets. I was volunteering for a migratory bird study being conducted by Audubon New York. My mission was to identify all the birds on site by sight or sound.  


The brush was heavy and the grove was still dark, so my ears were on full alert.  The woods echoed with the songs of newly arrived breeders as well as visiting migrants. The chorus was loud, intense and overlapping; it required considerable focus to tease out individual birdsongs. 


The songs of local breeders – such as Blackburnian and Black-throated Green warblers – were easy to identify, but the morning warm-ups of less familiar migrants (e.g., Cerulean Warbler) stumped me. The pressure was on, however; I needed a positive ID this morning or else I’d have to mark the dreaded “unknown spp.” on my data sheet.


Three unknown bird songs tested my patience AND my skills.  I focused on a single sound: a thin, lispy song with repeated notes coming from high in the canopy. I had a sneaking suspicion this was a Blackpoll Warbler, but it could easily be confused with other high-pitched songsters such as Black-and-white or Bay-breasted warblers. 


I could have reached into my backpack and pulled out a paper field guide for song descriptions, but written song clues wouldn’t be enough for this study. They can be subject to too much interpretation. 


To get it right, I needed an audio confirmation of each unknown bird’s identity PLUS an identification plate and a species profile if I was lucky enough to see the bird.


So I pulled out my smartphone and opened the Audubon Guides Birds app.  I navigated to Blackpoll Warbler (Dendroica striata) and pressed the Voice icon.


The app offered a surprising FIVE different song types for Blackpoll Warbler. I could choose regional song recordings from Quebec, Alaska, and New York as well as a fast-paced variation from Alaska and chip calls from New York.  I remembered reading that the app contains 2,300 different sound files covering a range of vocalizations for each bird – an outstanding compilation by any measure.


I pressed the New York song and it seemed to match what I was hearing. But could I confirm by sight?


I squinted into the tall trees hoping for a glimpse of the bird. While it disappeared behind some leaves, I looked down at the app to study its description: gray streaked above, with black cap, white cheeks and underparts, blackish streaks on sides. A white cheek and black cap could probably distinguish it from Black-and-white Warbler. I played the song a few times so I could confirm the match.


The bird must have heard my playback, because just then it swooped down and landed on a sunlit branch just 25 feet away. I trained my binoculars on the bird and there it was, a male Blackpoll warbler in full breeding plumage.


Score! The app helped me lock in an important ID, and, after exerting more effort and patience, the two remaining unknowns. I went home feeling good about my volunteer data AND how the app worked in the field.

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