David Sibley gives simple tricks for locating a bird you can hear but can’t see

Baltimore Oriole produces a rich, clear whistle. Triangulation will help determine how far away the bird is. Tilting your head will fix the height of its favorite perch. Art by David Sibley.
Baltimore Oriole produces a rich, clear whistle. Triangulation will help determine how far away the bird is. Tilting your head will fix the height of its favorite perch. Art by David Sibley.

Spring is the season for birdsong, but seeing the singer can sometimes be a challenge. Here are simple tricks that will help you locate a singing bird.

Our brain determines the direction of a noise based on when the sound reaches each ear. A sound coming from the right will reach your right ear a fraction of a second sooner than your left ear. Your brain calculates the difference and pinpoints the direction.

Listen to a singing bird for a minute or two and focus on direction. You can often get a better fix by turning your head, rather than holding it still. If you think a sound is coming from one direction, turn your head slightly and see if the sound remains where you expect it.

If the bird is moving as it sings, finding it will rely mostly on catching a glimpse of movement. If the bird seems to be stationary, chances are good it is on a favorite perch and will stay for several minutes or even longer. In that case, you can try to locate it by gathering more information on distance and height.

To determine distance, try using a technique known as triangulation. Listen from one spot, get a precise fix on the direction, and take note of landmarks along the line between you and where you think the bird might be — a distinctive tree trunk or bush, for example. Then move 10-20 feet to either side, pinpoint the direction of the singing bird again, and look along that line, checking against the landmarks from the first line. The point where the new line crosses the old one should mark the location of the bird. It will also give you an idea of the distance.

To determine the height of a sound, use your brain’s natural directional ability again, but turn it on its side. Face the sound and then lean sideways so that your head is horizontal. In that position, the lag between the sound reaching your two ears will tell you the vertical direction of the bird, rather than the horizontal direction.

Finally, anticipating the location of the singer is one of the most useful skills to develop. It will come with practice; the more you learn, the more you will see.

 

This article from David Sibley’s “ID Toolkit” column appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of BirdWatching.

 

The ‘Warbler Guide’ authors tell what to do when you can’t identify a bird song.

Six tips for birding by ear.

iKnowBirdSongs app is a fun, effective way to learn bird songs.

 

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David Sibley

David Sibley

David Sibley writes the column “ID Toolkit” in every issue of BirdWatching. He published the Sibley Guide to Birds in 2000, the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior in 2001, and Sibley’s Birding Basics in 2002. He is also the author of the Sibley Guide to Trees (2009), the Sibley Guide to Birds-Second Edition (2014), and guides to birds of eastern and western North America (2016). He is the recipient of the American Birding Association’s Roger Tory Peterson Award for lifetime achievement in promoting the cause of birding and a recognition award from the National Wildlife Refuge System for his support of bird conservation.

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