The challenges of recording birds

When you go out to make bird recordings, you become keenly aware of all kinds of noise you never noticed before. If you live in or near a city, you’ll find no shortage of noise sources.

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When you go out to make bird recordings, you become keenly aware of all kinds of noise you never noticed before. If you live in or near a city, you’ll find no shortage of noise sources.

I’ve been recording more frequently lately and have tried out different parks and natural areas in and out of San Antonio to see where some quiet places may be. Your place of choice may feel quiet and serene as a regular visitor, but as a recordist, your microphone will pick up all kinds of subtle background noises: airplanes, highways, passersby, insects, water bodies…you get the idea.

Getting ready to embark

When arriving at a nature park, I look at the trail map on my phone and try to take a trail that leads me away from the highway or suburban area. Many times, the trails run adjacent to these areas and that can make recording challenging and waste precious morning time.

Cibolo nature center trail map
The route I took at Cibolo Nature Center led me away from highways and urban areas

Similar to photography, where you may be trying to keep the sun to your back and look for subjects in good lighting conditions, the same applies to your recording efforts. While taking a trail or navigating through a park, be aware of the largest source of ambient noise and listen for birds that put you facing away from that source.

I’ve casually recorded on several occasions at my local park and there are almost always interruptions in the clips: train horns, jets flying overhead, noisy passersby, people playing disc golf, and the list goes on. All these distractions frustrated me when I tried to get nice recordings. So, I decided to set my sights on more remote locations.

Here is a recording I got from Pleasanton Trailhead of a large flock of adorable Killdeer flying over farmland.

Using eBird to find remote locations

I explored eBird and decided to visit Jungman Road in southwest San Antonio to record birds in a quiet location. It’s a wooded rural road in between two farms where you can find a variety of birds throughout the year. I arrived and made a few recordings as I walked down the road, but out of nowhere a loud farm dog ran to the edge of the property and began barking at me. This continued for several minutes as I walked away causing me to miss several opportunities to record.

The rush of water

On a recent trip to South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, I found a Great Kiskadee perched next to a waterfall. It was calling and vocalizing beautifully. I recorded it, but because of the water directly behind it, the recording was very noisy.

But I had patience… I waited a few minutes and the Kiskadee flew into a tree further away and I took this chance to capture a much better clip of it with less noise. This is a type of situation where it helps to be aware of your surroundings. I didn’t listen to the first clip before I decided to wait for another chance. I knew from the water nearby that the clip wasn’t going to be the best.

Great Kiskadee perched on branch
The Great Kiskadee perched on a thorny branch near a waterfall

Everyone has something to say

You find a perfect singing bird, it’s close by, it’s loud, and it’s sitting still…but there are many noisy birds all around: Carolina Wrens (the worst ones), Cardinals, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and more. These populous birds vocalize a lot and along with other noisy birds may show up in your recordings.

Carolina wren profile
A profile of a soon-to-be-noisy Carolina Wren

Narrow your aim

This is where a directional microphone comes in handy. If you record with a shotgun microphone or a parabola, you can better focus on your target bird and minimize ambient noises. Each of these microphones comes with a slight learning curve but you can pick them up in no time. Check out my bird song recording setup which includes a shotgun mic.

My recording setup: Sennheiser ME67 mic, MixPre-3 II recorder

Wrap up

Use eBird’s Explore Hotspots feature to hone in on one ideal recording location and go check it out. Keep in mind the nearby ambient noises and try to position yourself away from them to get the best recordings.

Have you found any techniques to get better recordings near urban areas?

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