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Entries in Birdsong (3)


Recording Hummingbird Wings (with Free Download)

Hummingbirds are amazing.  They are so tiny and their little wings flutter so fast. Fun facts: hummingbirds can hover in the air without moving in any direction.  They are also the only bird that can fly backwards!  Hummingbirds pump their little wings up and down so fast that they don't even flap... they buzz - or hum, I guess. They sound like big bugs.

I'm always thinking about capturing the interesting sounds that surround me... I've been familiar with the little hummingbird my whole life; it's about time I tried to record one in action. I headed up north to a family cabin one weekend this May and made it my mission to record some hummingbirds.   Now, before you get the idea that I was about to crawl through the mosquito-infested woods with my recorder and boom pole in pursuit of a bird no bigger than a cherry tomato... there is an easier way: to attract a hummingbird all you need is a hummingbird feeder filled up with a mix of sugar and water.  I set the feeder up outside the cabin and  rigged up my Sony D-50 with gaffer tape to the same porch brace the the feeder was hanging from, hit record and left the recorder running.  Hummingbirds can be a little shy about getting too close to humans, and since I don’t have a way to trigger record on the D-50 from a distance, I had to simply let it roll for a few hours in hopes that a few hummingbirds would come to take a drink.

The D-50 Lies in wait for the hummingbird to arrive.

Maybe they didn't like the look of that fuzzy thing hanging off the beam. After 2 hours of recording the feeder I ended up with only about 30 seconds of hummingbird action, but it was a glorious 30 seconds.  Take a listen:

The next morning I decided to take another run at recording the elusive hummingbird, but with a revised plan. This time I decided to use a shotgun mic going into my Sound Devices 702.  This way I would not need to be in record for hours on end since I could run a mic cable a few meters, take a seat and manually trigger record whenever a hummingbird made a move on the feeder.  The 702 has a pre-roll of 2 seconds in record mode, and this turned out to be enough to catch them on approach, since the birds swoop in with lightning speed.  

Rode NTG3 with a wind foam and furry ready to record hummingbirds

So I spent the next 3 or 4 hours sitting in a lawn chair with my headphones on and my finger ready on the record button. Sitting quietly in a comfy chair may not sound like a heroic enterprise to you but let me tell you, it was damn near a suicide mission.  This is northern Ontario, the month is May: the absolute peak time and place for murderous bloodsucking mosquitoes and blackflies.  I was almost eaten alive while sitting and waiting for the hummingbirds to come take a sip, and those little guys made me wait and wait.

While I was quietly waiting for hummingbirds I had other forest creatures come to visit and hang out, like that chipmunk only a few inches from my head.

For all my suffering I got quite a few good recordings of the hummingbirds.  I would have gotten more if it were not for the busy boat traffic on the river nearby and the construction of a new cabin down the road a bit.  A few hummingbird fly-bys were ruined by the noisy surroundings, but luckily a lot of the recordings happened to slip in between the cutting saws and speeding boats.  Here are a few of the birds recorded on day two:

I was fairly satisfied with the recordings I was able to get, and the weekend was over so I headed home.  The following week I was off to another cabin on a lake nearly 400 km (240 miles) away from the previous weekend's destination.  I got out my gear again and set up to record some hummingbirds at this new location. Jackpot!  This place was Hummingbird Central.  In a couple of hours I had recorded more of the little birds than I had in two full days the weekend before.  The downside was that it was much windier in this second location.  This made the leaves rustling in the trees much louder and since this cabin was on a lake rather than a river I had to contend with waves rolling in on the shore as well.  These things added up to a much louder ambient noise level in the recordings.  Despite those obstacles I was able to get a lot of great hummingbird wing-flutter.  Take a listen:

One of the challenges of this undertaking was setting proper levels.  Hummingbird wings are a fairly subtle sound, so I set the gain on my recorders fairly high.  To illustrate how quiet the birds are, here is a video taken with the camera about 5 feet away from the hummingbirds.  For the first few seconds of the clip you will hear the camera mic, then the audio will switch over to the Sony D-50’s mics.  

As you can hear, the hummingbird's wings are not even registering on the camera mic just a few feet away.  Yet the Sony was able to really zone-in on the flutter amid all the ambient noise in the surrounding environment.

I will keep trying to record these amazing little birds in future trips out into the wilderness; hopefully one day I will come across perfect conditions with no wind and calm waters so I can capture a pristine recording of the hummingbird's wings.  Until then, these will be the next best thing.

If you want to add some selected free hummingbird wing sounds to your sound effects library, please go to the Downloads page on this site and pull down the Hummingbird Wings SFX pack.  While you're at it, follow me on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS feed on this site and catch any new fx I offer through this site. 

As a bonus, also included in the free download is this recording of an unknown insect (it was blue, and was huge!) bouncing its body off the plastic hummingbird feeder trying to get at the sugar water inside.  It sounds amazing!

Here are some more photos of the hummingbirds feeding. They don't stay still for long so getting these pictures was even trickier than getting the sounds:

Just off the right side of the feeder's dish, a hummingbird gets ready for a drink.

If you look closely at the top right corner of this picture you can spot a hummingbird approaching the feeder.

This little guy decided to take a load off and land on the feeder while it drank the sugar water.

Here is another creature that came to visit while I was waiting for the hummingbirds. It is a baby Red Squirrel. The are insanely cute but eat the wiring inside the cabin if they find a way in.


Loons at 2am

As I mentioned in my last post, I was recently up at my family's cabin, a few hours away from the city.  It's just a two-bedroom cabin but there were eight people staying for the weekend, so when it came time to find a place to sleep, I was relegated to a tent outside.  This turned out to be a good thing for two reasons: first, it meant I got to sleep in, not waking up with the early-rising children at  6:45 AM. Second, it allowed me to sneak out to the lake in the dead of the night without bothering anyone sleeping indoors.

Moonlight reflecting off the lake.  Picture Credit: cabin guest Kassandra Wu

My goal was to capture some clean recordings of the loons that call the lake home.  For anyone reading this who is not from Canada, the loon is a bit of an icon in this country.  It's so popular that even our one-dollar coin is unofficially but universally known as a "loonie" after the image on the 'tails' side of the coin. The weird call of the bird is actually quite haunting, but has somehow come to represent summer vacations to all the city folk.  So even though the sound is a bit creepy, I feel a swell of happy summer nostalgia whenever I hear it.

The loon call is regularly used in radio and TV ads for vacation resorts and all kinds of outdoorsy programming but there are not many good recordings of the birds, and the same few recognizable clips are used over and over again.  I figured this was my chance to get some fresh recordings to offer to clients in future projects.  

Maybe one of the reasons there are relatively few good recordings of loons is they are not very easy to get close to.  While they can fly as well as any duck or goose, they're much better divers and underwater swimmers. Just when you've sidled up close enough to one, they slip away underwater and pop up a minute or so later a few hundred yards away.     

Common Loon  Photo Credit: John Picken under Creative Commons

Determined to catch a loon call, I ventured out two nights in a row, only to return to my tent with nothing to show for my hours of sleeplessness.   What I needed was a still night with no wind or waves on the lake at all.  The loons will chirp away on and off all night but they are never very close by, so if you have waves lapping up against the shore the noise will interfere with the clarity of the loon call.  The third night I found myself with the perfect conditions: all was calm and quiet.  I crawled out of my tent at 2 AM. While I was grabbing the gear and setting it up on the shore of the lake, the loons were in a really talkative mood.  All ready to go,  I hit record...  and the birds got stage fright and went completely silent.  Ah, the familiar plight of the common wildlife recordist. 

I sat in silence on the beach, in the darkness, with my finger on the record button. Forty-five minutes. I started to nod off. Then suddenly out of the night quiet the loons started up again.  I came to and I hit the button. They treated me to their two main calls, a really haunting long howl as well as a stuttered warble.  I only got one of the former but a whole bunch of the latter.

Loons calling on open lake at 2am by azimuthaudio

In the darkness I was never able to catch a glimpse of the birds so I'm not sure how many loons were piping up in this recording. Clearly it was more than one, calling out to each other back and forth from opposite sides of the lake. You can also hear that great slap-back echo as each call reflects from shore to shore across the open water. No point shooting any video in the middle of the night, but I think the recording speaks for itself this time.  

The call of the loons will always be one of my all time favourite sounds.  I hope you get a little bit of that summer feeling when you hear it too. 


Spring has Sprung!

This past winter has been a tough one for a lot of people in my city.  It has snowed a lot, and has been pretty consistently cold straight through from late november until about last week. Although this is pretty much what you can expect when you live in Canada, the reality is that the weather is rarely as constant as it was this winter.  Normally there are warm patches sprinkled in throughout the winter, obviously I am not referring to swim suit weather but frequently the temperature creeps up above freezing and the sun comes out for a week to re-energize the populace.  That never seemed to happen this winter though, sadly it did not bother me too much since I had a very very busy winter work wise and was mostly in dark rooms 7 days a week editing away, but I know others were really beaten down by the winter here.  And that is why it was such a relief to see and hear the first birds popping back into town recently.

Last week I was in the back yard early one morning, when I looked up and saw an amazing Cardinal sitting in one of our trees - just singing away.  I quickly ran inside to grab my my mic and field recorder, assuming that by the time I got back and was ready to record the cardinal would be long gone, but luck was on my side and the little fella stayed around awhile.  This is no great recording as there is ample traffic noise and some contruction going on down the street but I just thought I would throw this up to prove spring is actually on its way.

Spring Birds by azimuthaudio


About half way through the recording the cardinal flew away and immediately a different bird piped up and started chirping away, it must have been deep in a tree because I never saw it to snag a picture, so I can not identify it.  I am not what you would call an avid bird enthusiast.