Sound Bite of the Warbler Sound Workshop 2013

By Linda Oberholtzer, Photos by Mary Freeman

Participants-keeping-notesHave you ever driven around in your car listening to bird sound CDs until your ears were ringing?

Have you ever hopelessly tried to memorize sounds by playing them over and over again, as if they would absorb into your brain by osmosis?

If you have, there is still hope!

I attended the Los Angeles Audubon Society Warbler Vocalization Workshop in October 2013 at the Eaton Canyon Nature Center in Altadena.

This article is just a small taste of the workshop, which was part of two days of programs, including an evening joint program with Los Angeles Audubon and Pasadena Audubon
by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, authors of “The Warbler Guide” by Princeton University Press

Tom Stephenson talked about a NEW WAY to memorize bird sounds. A new way for learning and listening and remembering in the field.


Tom Stephenson giving tips


Participants keeping notes.

You have to allocate TIME to learn the sounds. He recommends to study about ten minutes, two times a day for 30 days.

The listening must be ACTIVE. Try to recognize each sound that you hear. Distinguish between buzzy and clear, high and low, duration—short or long, pitch rising or falling.
Mnemonics help.

Remember that visual images are stronger than words. The stronger the visual image—the better. Listening forces you to recall a memory and is an essential part of the
name-song connection.

Start to hear a song when you hear pieces of the song. Reviewing and testing yourself is important. Pick about five to eight songs to learn at one time. Listen to them carefully,
once or twice, one at a time and close your eyes while doing this.

Think, what do I picture when I hear this? Establish some image that connects the name to the sound for each species. For example, the rising and buzzy quality to the name of
the bird.

Prairie Warbler has a long rising buzzy sound. Picture a long rising prairie filled with buzzing bees as you walk step by step up it.

The Black-throated Blue Warbler sounds like “I am laaaazy.” Picture a lazy person with a blue blazer and maybe a white handkerchief. The CRAZIER, the better.

Stop and do something else for five minutes and then go back and test yourself using active recall. The image you pick has to be personal and has to pop up for you when it
comes up. You can use the shuffle feature on your iPod playlist to test yourself randomly. Don’t test on more than ten at one time. There is a program called “Audacity” that can
remove the name off of an audio recording. It is ok to see the name but not hear it out loud. Use a random order of playback without the announced name.

Make a playlist of sounds that are similar—like scolds. When first starting to learn, don’t start with the similar sounding yet. Divide target sounds into playlists. Don’t listen to
songs over and over. Study one page at a time.

This process is very personal. You have to tap into the creative side of the brain. It needs to create a picture—attach a name to the picture.

To illustrate the technique, Tom used birds of Thailand which were not familiar to everyone.

The Coppersmith Barbet sounds just like the name. It sounds like someone hammering on copper.

With the Golden-throated Barbet, the sound is going over the top. I had an image of Tarzan in a green outfit complete with red hat and green scarf jumping up and down in the jungle.

The Blue-throated Barbet sounds like it hits the roof and stops there. Like the sound bangs into the top. Picture a blue sound bar stopping at a line, bouncing back at the top of
the range.

The clattery and repetitive sound of the Blue-eared Barbet give me an image of a train with a blue streak on its side, clattering on a train track with squeaky wheels.

A great emperor with a black crown and brown cape comes to mind when the sound of the Great Barbet is played. It sounds like “I am GREAT.”

The tremulous echoing sound of the Lineated Barbet sounds like an alarm at the prison with “lines” (bars) going up. The audience participated and there were some creative
images thrown out to the group.

Abbott’s Babbler brings to mind the image of an Abbott singing and whistling, “Please wait for me” as the bride and groom wait at the Church for him to arrive.

The screechy and clear sound of the Puff-throated Babbler sounds like “come back here!” where a wife is calling to her husband to come back to the cream-puff section of the

For more details of visual and sound identification of Warblers, please see “The Warbler Guide” by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle printed by Princeton University Press.

Computer programs to use for learning sounds are your voice memo feature on the iPhone, Cakewalk software for PCs, Ravenlight by Cornell, Spectagram, and Audacity,
among others. Also, he recommends use of a shotgun microphone to record sounds in the field (costs about $400–$500) or a parabolic microphone (more expensive, heavier
to lug around) to zoom in on the sound.


Birders in line for book signing.


L-R, Catherine Hamilton, illustrator, authors Scott Whittle and Tom Stephenson book signing at the workshop.

Linda Oberholtzer is the Editor of the Western Tanager newsletter for the Los Angeles Audubon Society. She has observed over 42 North American Warbler species in the

Originally Published in the Western Tanager Vol. 80 No. 3 January/February 2014