Listening to Boreal Birdsong while filming SongbirdSOS

When the SongbirdSOS crew was shooting in Alberta, I was keen to wake up with the birds and document Erin Bayne’s team listening to Boreal birdsong, doing point counts near Calling Lake Alberta. One challenge when you are working at such northern latitudes is that dawn is around 4 am! But to hear the Boreal birdsong was well worth the effort.

Diana Stralberg - point counts in Boreal

cabin at dawn, calling lake alberta

A point count is a field method used to study avian population trends. The data fuels research for many scientists and can be found on the Boreal Avian Modelling Project website. A familiar favourite for many people (for me this songbird is synonymous with forest)  is the white-throated sparrow. Eighty-five percent of the population of white-throated sparrows breed in the Boreal. Sadly, these songsters are also in decline, as their population has dropped by thirty percent since 1966.

white-throated sparrow

Below is a sample recording of Boreal birdsong. Listen for the Tennessee Warbler, Hermit Thrush, Fox Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow and Dark-eyed Junco.

Another great resource for Boreal birds and how you can help is the Boreal Songbird Initiative.


Songbird photos by Joshua See.

Shooting in Costa Rica: Songbirds and live Fences

Shoot Day: Feb 23, 2014

Here’s Alejandra Martinez-Salinas with Jacques Avelino near CATIE , standing beside a newly planted “live fence.  A live fence is basically a double row of trees (different species) that line a crop field. It may seem like a tiny step (and it ain’t no rainforest) but it is a miracle to be able to convince a poor local farmer to give up an 8 feet strip of valuable crop from their already small farming plot for trees. The live fence can provide a corridor for animals and link forest patches. One benefit is more birds, and more birds equals more natural pest control, which is a big step in the right direction for sustainable agriculture – and for songbirds.

Songbirds in Costa Rica: The Proyecto Monitoreo de Aves (PMA)

Shoot Day: February 22, 2014 I had never been to Costa Rica, so filming there was amazing experience. After driving for hours on the single traffic-choked road that winds from San Jose we finally arrived at CATIE. CATIE is a Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Centre, located near Turrialba in Costa Rica. Here Alejandra Martinez-Salinas works both on research with the number one coffee pest – the Coffee Beetle Borer as well as manages the The Proyecto Monitoreo de Aves (PMA) .

Alejandra: “When I started working with songbirds I fell in love with the migrants because they were so tiny and fragile but also so strong and determined — I mean they really want to get somewhere and they usually get there! They move through so many different countries, it’s special just to hold an animal that’s been travelling so much, that’s been to so many different places …”

On our first morning of shooting we followed Alejandra and her associate Almilkar through their early morning songbird monitoring routine. At CATIE they monitor songbirds in different agricultural uses like abandoned coffee and cacao plantations. When we were filming they banded a few neo tropical migrants including a juvenile indigo bunting and a mourning warbler. The mourning warbler was a repeat band – it had already made the journey to North America and back and was re-captured one year later, near the exact same spot as the previous year. Even though I knew about this, to experience it was truly remarkable.

SongbirdSOS Newsletter#1

songbird_sos. image with bg.from Su's website_cropped


We are happy to announce that filming for our feature documentary SongbirdSOS is nearly complete. We are in the thick of editing now and look forward to sharing the film with audiences in the fall.

Humans share an intimate relationship with songbirds. The impulse to listen to their song and to capture them in our stories and music has existed for thousands of years. But this connection is in danger of being broken, as we have only half the birds now than we had in the 1960’s.

Over the last year the SongbirdSOS crew has been following and filming the birds around the globe — from Eastern Turkey to the Boreal Forest to New York City. We have touched down in places where songbirds are threatened and met the people from around the world who are working passionately to help them on their way.

While our development and production journey started four years ago, our journey to share this documentary with you and other people interested in birds and conservation issues starts now.

We will be announcing important dates and opportunities for involvement including details around film festivals, broadcasts and other screenings. We will also share highlights from the field through our blog. So please pass on this email if you know anyone who might be interested in the film. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

With your help we believe we can make a difference.

Our website and trailer will give you a glimpse of what to expect.

Dominik Eulberg_pic1_small


Our crew just wrapped shooting in France and Germany.  While there,  Director Su Rynard met with Martin Wikelski (Max Plank Institute)  who is on the cusp of tracking bird migration paths from outer space. The crew also partied with Dominik Eulberg, a raving ornithologist and famous DJ whose fascination with bird song inspires his electronic dance music.  Read more about our trip on our blog.





Bridget + Student


Our featured scientist this month is ornithologist and author Dr. Bridget Stutchbury. You will hear Bridget’s voice on our film trailer. Bridget wrote the highly acclaimed 2007 book, Silence of the Songbirds, a nominee for the Governor General’s Award, one of the most prestigous books awards in Canada. Bridget’s book was where our filmmaking journey began. Currently she is using ground-breaking geo-locator tracking devices to map bird migration routes across the globe. Read our blog post to find out more about her work.

The Breeding Bird Survey: A Birder’s Guide

BBS volunteer  Jim Blakelock shares how he got into birding and became involved in an annual North American Breeding Bird Survey route with his friend  and avid songbird watcher Sheldon McGregor.

“It was embarrassment that got me into bird watching. After University I spent a number of years working at construction and factory jobs. One of these jobs was at a house with a fruit tree in the back yard. It was fall, a warm day when a flock of songbirds descended on the tree, started to gorge themselves on the fruit. They promptly got ‘high’ on the fermented fruit, and started falling from the branches and staggering about the lawn.”

“The carpenters asked me, “So college boy, what are those birds?” I had no idea. My high priced education drew a blank and then and there I resolved not to get caught short again. It turned out they were Cedar Waxwings and I went on to be able to identify most common birds but was certainly not a crack identifier.”

Jim met Sheldon McGregor in 1976, when he was a student in his homeroom grade 7 class. On the weekends Jim would take students to a local marsh to bird watch.

“More often than not it was just Sheldon and me. In June, the kids restless with the approach of the summer holidays would whine to go outside and play baseball. “Sure,” I told them. “If a Kirtland’s Warbler lands in that tree outside the window.”’

“This caused great anticipation. Baseball was surely about to begin. Except for Sheldon smiling in his quizzical way saying “Don’t go for it guys. This is not a good deal.” Of course Sheldon knew that there were only about  200 pairs of Kirtland’s Warblers in the world and the odds of seeing that particular songbird outside our classroom window were nil. “

Around 1990 Sheldon asked Jim if he would like to help him with the annual bird population census, the Breeding Bird Survey, and they have been doing it together ever since. They have a route in rural Ontario. Jim records, Sheldon watches and listens. They do this for 3 minutes every half-mile (800 m) a total of 50 times beginning at 5:02 am, ending after 10 am.

In between they catch up on each other’s lives, children, careers, and of course, the birds. Jim is adamant that Sheldon teaches him much more than he ever taught him: the voice of the alder flycatcher or the call of the flicker that really may be a pileated woodpecker. Each of the 50 stops has its own attraction.

One of his favourites is a quiet spot. The trees are thick, leaning over the road tunnel-like. The forest floor is damp and flooded. “It’s here every stop for the past 30 years, that we have heard the Northern Waterthrush calling sharply without fail. It’s reassuring but worrisome at the same time; one wonders will we hear it next year?

Of course a day will come when one, or both of them will not be doing the count. Jim has been retired from teaching for 9 years now.  On his retirement Sheldon gave him a lovely pen and ink drawing of a bird – a Kirtland’s warbler.

The Kirtland’s warbler is a bird that is so rare that the Breeding Bird Survey does not have any accurate population data on the species. It is believed that due to conservation efforts there may now be about 5000 in Michigan.

As they head out to do their count this year, Jim and Sheldon hope this is the year when they will actually get to see one.



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