I have a secret: I am a mediocre birdwatcher.
I write about birds for a living, so people tend to assume that I must be an experienced, hardcore birder too. But the truth is, my birding style can be liberally described as casual. I don’t keep lists or hunt for rarities, and frankly, I’m pretty bad at identifying birds by sound.
Or at least I was until this spring, when I decided to try out a new smartphone app designed to make birds accessible by ear to the inexperienced. Part of Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Merlin Bird ID app, this tool made me aware of birdsong around me in a way that years of birdwatching with skilled experts never did. Not only did the app rekindle my interest in my favorite hobby, but it also introduced me to my new favorite bird, the Warbling Vireo — a species that has been all around me for years, but has been under my radar until now. to fly.
I met the vireo in a rather inconspicuous place. The migration was just getting started and I did a quick bird walk at my local spot before going to work. The Fort Walla Walla scenic area in southeastern Washington isn’t really anything special: 50 acres of blackberries and cottonwoods sandwiched between a hospital and a Home Depot. But it is the closest place to my house where I can find interesting migrants.
On this particular morning, I once again felt mildly frustrated at my inability to identify some of the songs I heard, and the birds I inevitably missed as a result. Then I remembered that at one point the Merlin Bird ID app added a “sound ID” feature that I was planning to try out. It leverages Cornell Lab’s extensive library of more than 1.5 million bird song recordings to capture live audio in the field and identify species in real time using machine learning. I fished my phone out of my pocket, opened the app and authorized it to use the microphone.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that moment changed my bird life. Within an hour, the app had alerted me to the presence of Western Wood-Pewees and Olive-sided Flycatchers, reminded me how to distinguish the songs of Black-headed Grosbeaks from those of the ubiquitous Robins, and led me to the first MacGillivray’s Warbler I had seen in years. I felt like a goober walking the trails with my phone out in front of me to record all the songs and phone calls. But being awakened by the presence of many amazing birds that I never realized were so common near my home was a humbling experience.
My favorite discovery was the Warbling Vireo. You may know this bird. I wasn’t – I even had a blind spot when it came to vireos. I had this weird habit of forgetting they existed, and I couldn’t even tell you which species were common where I live. So when the app insisted it hear a Cassin’s Vireo first, then a Warbling Vireo, I was stunned. Oh right! Vireos! They had been with me all along. And while the Cassin’s Vireos moved to other habitats over the following weeks, the Warbling Vireos hung around all summer.
Even among this often subtly colored bird family, Warbling Vireo’s are mostly inconspicuous in appearance and sound. They are mostly gray with a light yellow wash, and a Twitter acquaintance of mine recently described their song as the elevator music of birdwatching. It’s a common, never-ending, up-and-down warble (hence their name) that, if you’re a bad ear-birder like me, could easily be written off as “maybe a finch?” And then ignore.
But for me, now that I know they’re a thing, that’s a big part of the charm of the species. It turns out that Warbling Vireos, and their warble, are everywhere. Watching my child on the playground at the local park? Warbling Vireos sing. Shopping for plants at the nursery down the street? Warbling Vireos sing. Stream an old episode of M*A*S*H while I’m folding the laundry? Uh, yeah, pretty sure that’s a Warbling Vireo singing in the background.
I would have thought I already knew all the really common birds here. Discovering the existence of the Warbling Vireo through his song was like receiving a secret message that only I could hear everywhere I went.
I’m still learning to bird by ear. However, I have found that having an app that hears and identifies birdsong around me in real time has boosted my learning. For example, after some practice with Merlin, I no longer have to reach for my phone to tell a Wilson’s Warbler song, other than a Yellow Warbler, or the sprats! of a spotted towhee.
And after years of being an avid but casual birdwatcher, it was a joy to find myself in “beginner spirit” again. the . learn (or relearn) sounds of my local birds has added a new dimension, a new texture, to my appreciation of the natural world around me. And while I have a flash of orange (Bullock’s Oriole!) or turquoise (Lazuli Bunting!) chasing every tree in my adopted hometown, now that I can hear them.