Wednesday, 28 March 2012

An Engaging and Effective Way to Learn Birdsong

I’ve recently discovered a fantastic tool for learning and reviewing birdsong.  Larkwire is an online, browser based learning tool developed by three birders working out of Seattle.
Larkwire Home Screen, showing my progress in Beginner mode after just a couple of sessions
The format of the software is straightforward with two "game" modes.  For learning new songs, Gallery mode presents four birds and then plays a random recording of one species – the software has several different recordings for each species.  Clicking on the correct bird rewards you with a green bird symbol and five correct identifications of each species will complete your “lesson”.
Gallery Mode - clearly you aren't going to be identifying these birds by their looks alone
There are a couple of ways to access more information about the birds.  In Gallery mode you can change the view to give a quick summary of the birds you are learning.   Additionally, you can select one of the groups of birds on the side and the same information is available along with clickable links to the songs of all the species in that group.  Lastly you can simply search the entire database for specific birds.
A sample information screen - the boxes with the state/province codes are the song samples  and you can select species
The second game mode, used for review, is Field.  This game presents you with a blank screen and plays a song.  You tell the program if you know it and are then shown the bird.  Honesty is required, as you must tell the computer whether or not you were correct.  The game seems to adapt as you learn, playing missed birds more frequently until you have mastered them and throwing in the occasional known or new bird to keep you on your toes.

The really clever part about Larkwire is the personalization.  The program remembers previous sessions and progress so every time you start up it reviews previously learned species in Field mode, initially in small groups then in progressively larger groupings.  Your identification skills for each species are represented by the colour of that bird’s icon on the right side of the screen.  The colour progresses from green to blue to gold as you improve but also fades when you haven’t used the program or reviewed that species.  Overall progress bars on the homescreen track each colour level within the overall categories of Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced and Master.

A screen capture from Gallery mode when I first started using Larkwire - green birds are ones I had learned in Gallery mode, blue are ones that I had mastered to a certain degree of proficiency in Field Mode. 
I don’t have the birding experience or expertise to comment in detail on the bird song provided here, although based on the biographies of the programmers I would assume it is accurate and carefully selected.  What I can vouch for, as a teacher, is the solid learning theory behind the software – this program is sure to improve the speed and accuracy with which you identify birds by ear, whatever your general birding experience may be.  Walking to school the other day I heard a House Finch singing and immediately recognized it as such.  I realize that example will seem kind of pathetic to many birders but my birding by ear really is that bad and my recent progress is entirely due to this software.

That last great thing about Larkwire is that it’s a great deal!  For $25 you get 344 species and your account.  That’s less money than my set of Stokes Bird Song CDs cost me and, while there are far fewer species, there really isn’t a straightforward way to actively learn from CDs  - they are fundamentally a passive media.

Areas for improvement?  Wiser birders than I may quibble about regional variations, song selections, and intraspecies variability but, in my ignorance, I would only long for a stand alone version for Apple iOS and OS X.  An "offline" version might also include more intuitive and prominent personalization lists as well - the ability to create and save my own review lists would be handy.  In the meantime, I can spend a little time every day getting ready for those spring sparrows and warblers that are winging their way to Alberta as I conclude this post.

Friday, 23 March 2012

2 Days, 20 Minutes, 2 Calgary Lifers

This was a going to be a quiet bird week, filled with parent-teacher interviews and other end of term craziness.  However on Thursday morning I found myself running an errand in the Foothills Industrial Park, just a couple of blocks from where a Harris's Sparrow has been periodically reported over the winter.  Figuring that a quick detour couldn't hurt, I drove past the location and, unlike my previous visits, found the bird almost immediately singing from the middle of a bush.  Using my glovebox "backup binoculars" I took a few minutes to enjoy this new life bird (also picking up first-of-the-year American Tree Sparrows) before carrying on with my day.

Early this evening, as I was getting ready to pop out to run some errands, I checked Albertabird only to find that a Barred Owl had been spending the day in a front yard in Bayview, a Calgary neighbourhood on the south shore of Glenmore Reservoir.  Quickly grabbing camera and binoculars and mentally remapping my errands, I ran out of the door very thankful for daylight savings time.  Arriving at the posted address I found a small but growing group of birders and my life Barred Owl.
The crowd...
...and more impressively, the Barred Owl, Strix varia
Among the visiting birders were Russell Cannings and Jeremy Kimm, in from BC and fresh off finding a Lesser Black-Backed Gull at Inglewood Bird Sanctuary earlier in the day.  I also bumped into Bob Lefebvre and Dan Arndt from Birds Calgary who will likely post their own images and information shortly.  I should also mention that Ian Maton posted some much better photos than mine on his Flickr photo stream (perhaps he remembered his tripod - doh!)

Lastly many thanks to the patient and generous homeowner who made the information public, and happily kept company with an assortment of strangers on their lawn through the afternoon and evening.  A great lesson in the importance of birders and photographers being courteous and respectful in their pursuit of sightings.

I updated this post shortly after making it, to include this crop out of a much larger image.  For some reason it struck me, in its weird "impressionism", as capturing the peacefulness of the bird as it seemed utterly content with us just a few feet away.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Excitement at Inglewood

This afternoon I took a brief stroll around Inglewood Bird Sanctuary.  There had been reports of possible Cackling Geese - a potential life bird, as well as early arrivals of Ring-billed and California Gulls, and a Harlequin Duck - a new Alberta bird for me.  When I made my way down to the river, I found the number of geese slightly down from Thursday's reported "2000+" to a total of 4!  There were about three dozen Mallards with half as many Common Goldeneyes and four Buffleheads, so I enjoyed watching their antics through my scope (the Bucephalae, not the Mallards - I'm not sure Mallards really do "antics" very often).  I was also scanning for the Harlequin.

What followed was one of those great "who says birding can't be exciting?" moments.  As I arrived at the last (furthest downstream) viewing point along the riverbank, half a dozen Mallards flushed from behind a gravel bar in a fast flowing section of river.  Each bird in the group registered in turn: brown female, ring-necked male, female, another male, another, another ring-necked male... who's really tiny... and sort of blue... wait a second!  Bins up...  on the bird...  Harlequin!  And they were behind the trees.

I waited.  If the birds were going to circle back to the same part of the river they would likely stay low and come back over my head, choosing the bird sanctuary rather than the busy freeway behind the opposite bank.  Sure enough, a few moments later, there they were back over the trees, up the river, and landing on the far side, a hundred yards upstream.  Scope in hand I raced back up the trail - much to the bemusement of a passing photographer - and I set about watching the bird and capturing the images below.
My first Alberta Harlequin.  Even though this male Mallard it clearly trying to psych out the stranger, they really are pretty tiny ducks - 23" Mallard vs 16" Harlequin 
The duck was keeping close company with the Mallards most of the time I was there.  Notice the Common Goldeneye in the right of the frame: there was a lot of this displaying going on, much of it directed at the Harlequin.  The Mallards, on the other hand were almost completely ignoring the celebrity in their midst, who seemed at times to be using them for some measure of protection.  Perhaps the Goldeneyes perceive competition from other diving ducks, while the Mallards, as dabblers, are ambivalent.  Any thoughts?  Or perhaps you've seen this behaviour before?
That was about it for my Inglewood birding.  A couple of gulls flew over while I was admiring the Harlequin.  They were probably Californias.  Or Ring-Bills.  My day had already been made.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

An Interesting Post About House Sparrows... no, really.

Not much time for blogging or birding this week, due to report cards.  I did manage to head out with a group to look for Northern Flying Squirrels on Friday night but we dipped out and settled for a Ruffed Grouse, feeding just a few yards away in near darkness.  If you are looking for some bird-related reading check out this very interesting article about House Sparrows on the Smithsonian Magazine website.  These birds are extraordinarily widespread and Calgary has the dubious distinction of the highest Christmas Bird Count total in North America, so it behooves us to learn a little about them even if they aren't everyone's favourite bird.
The ubiquitous House Sparrow, Passer domesticus, on our feeder
A fairly terrible photo of the aforementioned Ruffed Grouse, Bonasa umbellus.  This is a 1/2 second exposure, f4 at 300mm with ISO 3200 - it was REALLY dark!

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Speaking of Penguins...

We now have penguins at the Calgary Zoo: Gentoos, Rockhopper, Humboldt, and King.  They're all housed in a spiffy new building with underwater viewing, including two sections of glass floor where you can see the birds swimming by under your feet.  There was a big line this morning so we had to wait a little over an hour to get in.  Fortunately there were docents working the line with biofacts for the kids to see so we managed to pass the time without too much difficulty and learned something along the way (penguins have barbed tongues like cats - who knew?).  Once the penguins are acclimatized to their new home the more southerly species (King and Gentoo) will be outside in the winter season.  In the summer they will flip them around so the Humboldts and the Rockhoppers can enjoy some fresh air while the cold weather specialists keep cool inside.  Here are a few photos of the new residents (click to enlarge as usual).
3 Humboldts and a Rockhopper
2 Gentoos
Rockhopper penguins look slightly demonic at times - I would not want to be on the business end of that bill
Michael meets a King Penguin.  Some people aren't big fans of zoos but I think that anything that makes people, especially kids, more passionate and informed about wildlife must be an ultimately worthwhile enterprise.