Bill Evans Unique Songbird Acoustic Monitoring

For nearly 30 years, Bill Evans has had his ear to the sky,  listening to the calls of songbirds as they travel through the night. The process is called acoustic monitoring and the data he collects provides valuable information on songbird migration and the health of their populations.

Bill’s journey as a renegade scientist began in 1985 after a long night of delivering pizzas. He was resting on a bluff in eastern Minnesota at two in the morning when he heard it: the sound of hundreds of unseen birds flying overhead in the dark spring sky. He was entranced by their calls. “It was just such an enthralling experience for me,” said Bill. “To hear those calls so clearly – I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

Bill Evans night sky

At that time Bill was a history of science student at the University of Minnesota. He didn’t know how, but that day he decided he would find a way to record those calls over the duration of an entire night and to archive the data for others. He’s been committed to this work ever since.

Bill’s process has evolved with technology. He recorded his first calls on hifi VCRs, playing back the tapes and noting the calls by hand. The advent of computers has sped up the process and he now uses software that can extract the calls automatically.

He left his academic path to pursue his passion full-time and now works from his make-shift laboratory at his home in Ithaca, New York. His methods are unorthodox.  He constructs his microphones with the cheapest materials he can find: buckets, rubber bands and plastic wrap. He publishes his songbird data and his do-it-yourself methods on his website, www.oldbird.org, in the hopes of empowering citizen scientists to participate in this ambitious and important long-term bird acoustic monitoring project.

Similar to the Breeding Bird Survey, bird acoustic monitoring employed by citizen scientists across the continent has the potential to become a valuable tool for ornithologists and conservationists. He wants his work to become an index for looking at change, not just for the birds, but for the health of the planet as well.

Mic and Observatory

“These birds are tied down to habitat,” said Bill. “If you’re monitoring the population of the species, especially those neotropical  migrant songbirds, you have a sort of pulse on the condition of central or southern America wherever those birds go. You have a way of tuning into the changes of the planet from your home.”

Bill’s innovative methods give scientists a new way to measure the population trends of migratory songbirds. He is still driven by the same passion from that awe-inspiring moment but now, considering the many threats faced by songbirds, with a greater sense of urgency.

The SongbirdSOS documentary crew filmed with Bill on a beautiful night near the Cornell Night Sky Observatory in Ithaca, New York. 

Scientist uses light study to prevent bird collisions

Last year we were with bird expert Bill Evans as he conducted one of his DIY experiments: beaming lights into the sky to test the impact of artificial light on night migrating birds.

Inside his home laboratory, Bill used weather radar to determine if the birds would be migrating across our rural New York location. That’s right – flocks of songbirds are large enough to appear on weather radar systems. “We still have a low cloud ceiling and maybe some light drizzle so the birds can’t see the stars they use for celestial navigation,” he said. “They’re going to have to rely on their internal compass or other cues that we’re not even aware of.”

The light rain is good for the study.  Water particles in the air refract light and lead birds to aggregate. Bird aggregation in cities however, is bad news. “The phenomena is of course what’s causing the tower kill phenomenon,” he said.

Toronto’s Fatal Light Awareness Project estimates that between 100 million and one billion birds die from collisions with buildings every year in North America. Bird collisions typically occur at night when birds are migrating and lights inside buildings are turned on. Bill is trying to understand the mechanism that induces light aggregation in birds, not just in cities, but for the ever increasing numbers of communication towers and wind turbines.

That night Bill learned that certain colours of light are more dangerous than others. Red light, which is typically blamed for bird mortality at tall TV towers, did not provoke bird aggregation but did with blue, green and white light.

Listening to the audio recordings was especially telling. Within minutes of the lights being beamed into the sky the calls of the confused birds increased dramatically. As soon as Bill turned off the lights the calls ended.

In some instances, industry is adopting safer lighting for communication towers and turbines. As for the rest of us, can we be convinced to turn off the lights in our cities?

The songbirdSOS experts talk about International Migratory Bird Day

On Saturday, May 10 2014 thousands of birders across the globe will be celebrating International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD). We checked in with the experts we interviewed in the film to see what they are doing on this special day.

Robert Rice is the acting director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Centre, which founded International Migratory Bird Day in 1993 in Washington, DC. The event has grown to involve more than 700 events in North America each year. This year, Robert will be going to the Okanagan Valley’s Meadowlark Festival to give a keynote address at the opening event.

In Northern Alberta Erin Bayne is too busy with his fieldwork deep in the Boreal forest to plan anything out of the ordinary for Migration Day.  This spring field season involves coordinating fourty people with work like setting up recording devices, banding for migration studies, and teaching new students about banding, telemetry and behavioural observations.

Ornithologist Bridget Stutchbury will be spending the day with her husband Gene (also an ornithologist) birding around their farmhouse in northern Pennsylvania. She has been trying to attract her favourite bird, the Purple Martin, to the property for years and usually goes to the Purple Martin Conservation area in Erie, Pennsylvania to get her fix. The species’ natural habitat is tree cavities, which are very scarce, so Bridget built a birdhouse colony in hopes that they will thrive in the area. Bridget spotted a Purple Martin on April 6, her earliest sighting yet.

Everyday is Bird Day for Bill Evans. He works on his nocturnal monitoring project every day of the year. Each morning this spring, Bill has been analyzing migration flight calls gathered from six recording stations. Peak migration season is fast approaching, so this is an especially exciting time for his team. On Saturday, Bill will be doing his normal daily routine: crunching bird call data from across the continent to put online on his site OldBird.

Andrew Farnsworth has a busy day of birding in New York City planned for Saturday. The night before, he will be watching weather radar to see how migration is proceeding across the United States. If the skies are clear and the winds are southerly, he will be listening to flight calls in the early morning hours. He will be in New Jersey just after dawn, birding in the DeKorte, Liberty and Secaucus areas, and perhaps to Rumson and Sandy Hook. Later in the afternoon he’ll hit Central Park.

The team at the Aras Bird Banding Station in Turkey has a very busy day planned; they will be banding and releasing birds for an audience of children, students, and members of the public. The district’s director of conservation will also be there. Cagan Sekercioglu, the director of the Aras Conservation would normally be there but he is getting married!

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