Summer in Humboldt is the perfect time for family vacations, trips to the beach or river, exploring the farmers markets and seeing the sights from atop a Ferris wheel. But for bird enthusiasts, it's slim pickings. The spring migrants have flown the coop and most of the local residents are keeping a low profile while raising their young. Even at the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary, a usually reliable hot spot, the mudflats are bare and the marshes seem deserted except for mallards leading broods of downy ducklings.
However, while there may be less to see, there's plenty to hear, and summer is a perfect opportunity to practice birding by ear. Learning the infinite variety of bird sounds can be daunting for many enthusiasts, myself included. There are a lot of tools available to assist in learning the different bird songs and I've tried most of them: CDs I played in my car until my family begged me to stop, poor phone recordings I posted on birding forums until other members begged me to stop and birding with sharp-eared birdsong savants. But for me, nothing stuck; it was always in one ear and out the other.
Lately, though, I've been experimenting with two free apps from Cornell Labs, Merlin Bird ID and BirdNET. Both use artificial intelligence technology to match bird recordings made in the field to a database of known bird sounds and the results can be surprisingly accurate. Of the two, I prefer Merlin for its ease of use and instant feedback: I just start recording as I walk my dog around our neighborhood and Merlin creates a running checklist as we go. It's a fun adjunct to visual birding, especially in the early morning when the dawn chorus is at its peak.
But apps — at least so far — are no match for the human ear and their technology can be confounded by traffic noise, jingling dog tags, footsteps and even bad weather. One rainy morning, Merlin told me the little violet-green swallow cheeping from the top of a telephone pole was an osprey, a large bird of prey. Still, it's a remarkable resource that is likely to become even more reliable over time.
If using an app doesn't feel right, Humboldters now have another option: Retired Eureka High School science teacher Robert Childs has created www.earbirdinghumboldt.com, featuring the sounds of dozens of local birds. An avid outdoorsman, Childs recorded more than a thousand bird songs and devoted almost a year and half to fine-tuning them and building the site.
Child said he was inspired to create the Earbirding Humboldt site to help everyone, not just birders, tune in to who's singing around them. "Birds are our window into the animal kingdom," he said. "They just add so much to the outdoor experience."
The site is easy to navigate and offers auditory peeks into Humboldt's varied habitats: redwood forest, marshland, urban residential and inland mountains, among others. Especially useful is a section called "Similar Songs Compared," where birds are grouped by the type of song they sing. When I heard an unfamiliar warble in the greenbelt the other day — something like a robin with a scratchy throat — I went to the "Birds that Warble" subsection, scrolled through the options and found a match. My bird was a Western tanager, a great find for my neighborhood.
There's also a fun quiz section where you can practice identifying birds by sound. One quiz features 16 of Humboldt's "loudbeaks," Childs' term for the most common coastal singers: Swainson's thrushes, song sparrows, marsh wrens, Wilson's warblers and others whose songs are so much a part of the Humboldt soundtrack that they're often barely noticed.
Humboldt's tall trees and dense vegetation mean birds are often heard rather than seen, something Childs discovered when he moved here from the Midwest. "I just wanted to know my birds, so I started recording them," he said. "It's been a lot of work, but I think (the site) can be a really useful tool for people who want to learn bird songs."
So if you've ever asked yourself, "Who's making that call?" there are a lot of great options to help you find the answer. And now's the perfect time to get out and listen.
Sarah Hobart (she/her) is a freelance writer based in Humboldt County.