Recording birdsong is a great way to become a better birder.
When I started birding, taking photos of birds was a natural extension of looking at them through binoculars. For years I was focused on capturing beautiful photographs of any bird I could, letting their songs and calls punctuate the hum of nature in the background. I remember going birding with my friend Dinuk for the first time. He could seemingly name all the bird species we heard just by ear, noticing species that would’ve gone unnoticed and unseen by myself.
Over time, I would slowly pick up knowledge of new bird songs just from repetitive listening and close observation. But it wasn’t until I decided to start recording bird songs with my iPhone that I started to learn faster. Eventually, I got tired of the limitations the iPhone microphone imposed and decided to start looking for a recording setup that would enable me to get better capture birdsong. Read about my first experience recording with this setup.
If you’re considering buying a microphone and recorder setup to record bird songs, it can be a bit overwhelming with the variety of equipment available online. I’ve found a setup that works nicely for my needs and will share with you what I use out in the field.
1/19/23: I’ve made a few upgrades to my setup since the publishing of this post, so I’ll update you on my current equipment along with my previous gear.
Sennheiser ME67 Shotgun Microphone
I picked up this discontinued microphone at the recommendation of the Macaulay Library and Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It’s very similar to my previous microphone the ME66, but twice as long with better directionality. It’s easiest to get on eBay these days.
Sennheiser ME66 Shotgun Microphone
There are several styles of microphone you can use when recording birds: a handheld recorder/microphone combo like the Zoom H4N, a parabolic setup (a microphone with a parabolic dish), or a shotgun microphone. I chose a shotgun microphone for its highly directional recording (but not too directional!). Of course, you can also use your phone. If you use your phone, I recommend recording with the Merlin app, which will record in .WAV format and ID birds at the same time.
A shotgun microphone is great for recording birds from a distance as it’s most sensitive in the direction you point it, and it does a decent job of filtering out sounds coming from other directions.
2022 update: The ME66 has been discontinued, but the MKE 600 is now available
Rycote Lyre Mount with Pistol Grip Handle
If you hold a microphone with your bare hands it will cause handling noise and potentially ruin your recording. I recommend putting your microphone into a shock mount/handheld grip that will reduce or eliminate handling noise.
I picked up this pistol grip handle for my microphone because it’s easy to hold and can be adjusted to multiple angles depending on how you want to record.
So you don’t have to carry your microphone for two hours by hand, you should consider attaching a shoulder strap to the grip handle. I found this adapter from my local camera store. It fits into the bottom of the grip and has a hole for a ring attachment. From there, I attached a camera strap to it and sling it over my shoulder.
This is simply a great windshield that fits the ME67 mentioned above.
Auray WSS-2018 Professional Windshield
When you’re out in the field, winds and breezes are inevitable. Having a quality windscreen on your microphone will help cut out some of the noise that wind will cause. The hairier the better. Your microphone may come with a foam windscreen, but that won’t cut it when you’re outside. This windscreen slips over the end of the microphone and does a great job cutting out wind pollution.
I recently upgraded from the Zoom H4N to the MixPre-3 II which creates recordings that are super clean and with virtually no noise from the recorder itself. The quality of your field recordings will greatly depend on factors such as your microphone, and ambient noise like wind, other birds, planes, etc. The biggest feature of the recorder is it has the ability to record in 32-bit float. What does that mean? It means that your recordings will never clip (be too loud) and even quiet recordings can be edited to acceptable levels. It also has a pre-roll feature that captures up to ten seconds before you press record which can help with catching a bird call. This recorder is not cheap but it seems like a buy-it-for-life type of device
You can get it on Amazon, but I recommend getting it from B&H Photo Video. They sell a kit that comes with literally everything you need, including an excellent carrying case you’ll need in the field.
Zoom H4N Pro
A microphone alone won’t record your bird songs, you’ll need a recorder plugged into your mic to actually save the clips. This is where the Zoom H4N Pro comes in. With built-in microphones, this recorder can capture both with and without an external mic attached. A built-in speaker enables you to listen to your clips on the go. It eats through AA batteries like candy, however.
Rycote Mic Tail Short XLR Cable
Another must is a cable to connect your microphone to your recorder. In my case, I use two XLR cables. The Rycote mount above requires a specific XLR cable that will fit in the grip. From there, I attach a longer XLR cable to the recorder itself. This setup keeps my cables from getting in the way when I’m trying to get that perfect recording.
An optional piece of equipment in my bird song recording setup is a pair of over-the-ear headphones. Having a pair of headphones connected to your recorder enables you to hear what the mic is hearing and block out ambient sound. I say this is optional because I find myself often leaving the headphones at home when I go out to record. My reason for this is it can be cumbersome to constantly be putting on and taking off the headphones in between recordings. You’ll need your unobstructed hearing when not recording so you can spot new birds so leaving the headphones on all the time isn’t an option. They can be difficult to put on when your hands are full of your microphone and recorder.
I hope this breakdown of what gear I use in the field to record birdsong is helpful. But of course, none of this is necessary when you are starting out. I recommend starting out with your phone for a while until you decide if bird song recording is your next big hobby. You’d be surprised what a phone can record these days. Pro tip: Make sure to download an app that can record in WAV format (I recommend Merlin) to avoid your files getting compressed into MP3.