Mighty Pods Interviews Wildlife Recordist Lang Elliott About Nature, Technology, the iPod, and birdPod

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Wildlife recordist Lang Elliott, creator of the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs, Eastern Region, dicusses recording bird sounds and the impact of the iPod on birding. Lang describes the process of recording bird songs and tells how things have changed--including the difficulty today of finding silent moments to record without the sound of jets overhead. He concludes by discussing the revolutionary impact of the iPod for those interested in listening to bird songs in the field.

Wildlife recordist Lang Elliott, creator of the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs, Eastern Region, dicusses recording bird sounds and the impact of the iPod on birding. Lang describes the process of recording bird songs and tells how things have changed--including the difficulty today of finding silent moments to record without the sound of jets overhead. He concludes by discussing the revolutionary impact of the iPod for those interested in listening to bird songs in the field.

MPods: Before we talk about birdPod or even the iPod, we're curious. How did you get into wildlife recording?

Lang: I became interested in wildlife sounds as a young boy growing up in northern Missouri. I was lucky to live in an area where there were lots of lakes and ponds and I spent a lot of time studying pond life, especially frogs and toads. I remember hearing amazing bullfrog choruses, and going out at night with a flashlight and watching them sing. When I got to college, I bought a Uher reel-to-reel tape recorder and a parabolic microphone. I took a class in Herpetology and began recording frog sounds just for fun, with no plans to become a nature recordist. The title of my term paper for the course was "The Calls of Frogs and Toads."

MPods: When did you realize that you might be able to make a living recording nature sounds?

Lang: I still wonder if it's possible to make a living recording nature sounds. I certainly have managed to get along in this respect, for about 15 years now, but I'm still waiting for my "money-ship" to come in. I may have to keep working until the day I die, which is not a bad idea, actually.

MPods: So, you've been recording nature sounds, bird songs in particular, for 15 years. What was a typical morning of bird song recording like when you first started and what significant changes have occurred in recent years?

Lang: I've been doing serious nature recording since 1988, which is about 16 years. Most of my bird recording takes place at the crack of dawn, from the first hint of light until sunrise. The spring and early summer dawn chorus is amazing, and many birds have special "dawn songs" that they only perform for an hour or two at the beginning of their day.

When I began doing field work in earnest, I was able to record for two or three hours on calm mornings, with only moderate interference by high flying jets, distant car noise, roosters, barking dogs, and the like. Over the years, jet noise has gotten much worse. I believe that the number of planes in the air has more than doubled in the last twenty years, perhaps even tripled or quadrupled. It is now very difficult to find quiet areas, especially in eastern and central United States. It is not unusual for me to begin recording at 4:30 am, only to have jet after jet going by overhead, ruining my recordings. Jet noise, even when the jet is way high up, is quite audible and very difficult to remove from a recording.

MPods: How about the listening side? That is, listening to the song of a particular species in the field. I assume that sometimes you needed to hear a recording of particular bird species, how did you do that 20 years ago and how did that change recently--not yet including the iPod?

Lang: When I began recording, I often had no idea what bird I was hearing. I would make recordings in the semi-darkness of dawn and then identify them later, back home where I could compare the songs to reference recordings. In those days, the only comprehensive audio guide to bird songs was the Peterson Guide. I also had friends who were birders, and they helped me identify recordings. In many instances, I would get a great recording of a bird at dawn without seeing it, then I would go back to the same spot later in the morning and make the identification.

In recent years, after I authored the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs, Eastern/Central, I would travel with that guide and a portable CD player. If I became confused about a song, I would make an educated guess and then check the Stokes CDs. Of course, this involved choosing the right CD (among three), and then navigating to the right group of birds so that I could hear the species I wanted to hear, track by track. It was a rather awkward process that required using the booklet to find track numbers, but I used it many times when I became stumped, especially with certain warblers early in the season, when my memory of their songs was a bit vague.

MPods: Okay, let's talk about the iPod: What do you think of the iPod? And as a device for listening to bird songs in the field?

Lang: Accessing a comprehensive bird song library using the iPod is revolutionary. It is way more convenient than dealing with multiple CDs; there's really no comparison. One doesn't need a booklet and one doesn't have to worry about track numbers. With the iPod, it's as simple as pie. Before you is a list of species included in a folder. Using a circular finger motion, you scroll quickly down the list until you come to the bird you want to hear. And with a single click, you hear it singing. You can return to the playlist and zoom to another bird in no-time flat. It is so easy, and so incredibly useful in the field.

MPods: BirdPod is a perfect marriage of the iPod and bird sound recordings. What impact do you think it will have on the birding world?

Lang: Every birder will have to have one of these. Because many more birds are heard than seen, a portable field guide to bird sounds will actually be more useful than a classic visual field guide. The trick, of course, is being able to make an educated guess so that you know what bird group to check when you hear a mystery song.

MPods: What do you hope will be your legacy when you're done with collecting and organizing all the nature sounds that, well, define your life?

Lang: From dust to dust. I will return to the earth and so will my work, although my work will probably outlast me for a decade or two. Having done all this field work, I do feel the responsibility to get it out there where folks can enjoy it. And I have a long way to go in this respect. So I am glady busying myself with a number of projects that will help bring the sounds of nature to those who desire to hear them.

MPods: What projects are you currently working on that you would like to tell us about?

Lang: Lotsa projects ...All TOP SECRET, of course. The only one I can reveal is that NASA is sending me to the moon to record Moon-creatures as they sing praise to the beautiful Earth that graces their sky.

For more information about birdPod, please check out the birdPod web site at http://www.ibirdpod.com.

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Jay Davis