CD Reviews Advance to publication Nov/08 Journal Wildlife Sound Recording Society
Beginners Guide to Bird Songs of North America
An eight lesson guide on 3 CDs
by John Neville & Mel Coulson
ISBN 978-097817972-4; 2007
Reviewed by Simon Elliott
This is the latest offering from Canadian WSRS member John Neville’s rapidly growing output of bird sound CDs, and represents a leap from regional to continental coverage. Using recordings from his own extensive archive, as well as contributions from other recordists (e.g. Catherine Thexton of WSRS), we see a change in format to a series of lessons and quizzes. Thus most of the individual recordings will have been heard before, but here they are cleverly used for a different purpose. As someone who has watched and recorded birds in North America - N S E & W - I was keen not just to review this production, but to take the opportunity to test my knowledge as well.
Each ‘lesson’ is habitat based rather than by region or by genus, so instead of the usual State or Western/Eastern North American divisions, we have more familiar groupings: Lakes, Ponds & Rivers; Marsh & Riparian; Backyards, Towns, Parks & Suburbs (surely “Burbs”!); Deciduous Woodlands; Open Mixed Woods & Thickets; Farms, Grassland, Savannah & Prairie; Conifer Forest & Night Birds; Review.
A seven minute (slightly hurried) introduction from Mel Coulson sets the scene about listening to birds, and introduces the concepts of context and memory associations. Nice to see the use of mnemonics referred to as bringing ‘fun’ to bird identification. These mnemonics and song descriptions are listed under each lesson and quiz on the eight page printed insert.
The subsequent lessons are narrated by John or Mel in rotation. The recordings are generally clean and of the expected high quality, as required for an identification guide. Importantly, each species has its own track, so location and review are easy. The narration is informative and comprehensive, so although it reinforces the mnemonics in the text, the CDs can clearly be used as a standalone guide without recourse to the notes. So on my next trip to Canada or the USA I will probably rip the CDs to my mp3 player (with John’s permission of course!) to use as a portable audio guide.
The lessons are not just simple lists of calls and songs, but there are helpful examples of local dialects, e.g. for the Song and White-throated Sparrows, and direct species comparisons, such as chickadees, cuckoos, hummingbirds, wood pewees, meadowlarks.
Each lesson is followed by a quiz track, presented in an informal way as if walking through the previously described habitat.
The final lesson is a useful comparison on a more genus-based approach, but the practical nature of the whole production is summed up by the nice title for track 23 (CD3): ‘Weird Sounds in the Reeds’.
With 810 North American bird species listed in the Sibley Guide to Birds of North America, and just over 100 species featured on these CDs, clearly it is not comprehensive, but it does not set out to be so. There are understandably gaps in coverage: like many birders I enjoy the challenge of identifying New World warblers, and some of the commoner eastern species in particular are not well represented here. But habitat-based guides are always useful to the occasional visitor to a foreign land, especially one as large and diverse as North America. I have spent far too much time listening fruitlessly through genus-based guides (e.g. Peterson or Gibbon) trying to identify calls without any basic knowledge about which family the bird belongs to in the first place. So although I will always collect genus-based guides to the areas I visit around the world, I think this contribution from John Neville is possibly his most useful yet. Even as a fairly frequent visitor to the region, I have been able to fill in a few ID gaps by using it.
I recommend anyone travelling to North America, especially Canada, and particularly first-timers, to buy this set – as well as being an enjoyable listen, it will save a lot of time in identifying many of the most likely bird songs to be heard.
Are you a birder? Bird Song can be a great key to unlock the species identification mystery.
Beginners Guide to Bird Songs of North America
by John Neville and Mel Coulson
Cover painting,Common Yellowthroat, by Evi Coulson
It comprises an introduction and eight lessons. We cover 108 of the commonest birds in North America during the course of the 3 CD set. The first seven lessons , each have a quiz at the end to test the listeners skill. The eighth lesson is a review of the different bird groups. Each species has its own track to allow easy access to the birder. We give tips on bird identification, habitats and distribution. Comparing and contrasting eastern and western species is a bit of a challenge and therefore we have made a big effort to simplify the issue.
CD #1 Lesson 1-3 40 tracks
CD #2 Lesson 4-6 43 tracks
CD #3 Lesson 7&8 25 tracks
COPY AND PRINT QUIZ ANSWERS BELOW IF YOU DOWNLOAD
Question# Mystery Bird Song,Mnemonic or Associated Idea
Track 11 Quiz Lesson 1 LAKES,PONDS & RIVERS:
1. Canada Goose Deep musical honking
2. Red-winged Blackbird A-con-ker-eea/\"clink\"call note
3. Pied-billed Grebe Throaty,forceful kuk-kuk-kow-kowp
4. Bald Eagle Thin chittering call, weak for ..
5. Yellow Warbler Sweet-sweet-sweet,little boy sweet
6. Common Yellowthroat Witchety-witchety-witchety-witch
7. Osprey Sharp whistles k-yewk,k-yewk...
8. Belted Kingfisher Loud dry rattle,like Hairy Woodp..
9. Spotted Sandpiper Peet,peet!peet-weet-weet-weet!
10. Common Loon Yodelling, falsetto wail,tremolo
Track 26 Quiz Lesson 2 MARSH & RIPARIAN:
1. White-throated Sparrow Ah, dear Canada, Canada, Canada
2. Sora Kerwit-kerwit/maniacal descending laugh
3. Great Blue Heron Loud,raucous and guttural croak
4. Alder Flycatcher Low raucous & abrupt -Three beer!
5. Willow Flycatcher Sharp raspy, Fitz-Bew
6. Marsh Wren Harsh reedy trill-like two stones
7. Wilson\'s Snipe Winnowing whowhowho-piping yukyukyuk
8. Virginia Rail Kidick-kidick, ticking, churr
9. Eastern Phoebe Fee-beee last syllable accented
10. Yellow-headed Blackbird Grating,raspy like rusty hinge
11. Song Sparrow Maids-maids,put on the kettle-ettleettle
12. Mallard Generic quach-wack-wack
13. Eastern Kingbird Like a tape on fast forward
14. Tree Swallow Series liquid chips and chirps
15. Northern Waterthrush TwitTwit-SweetSweetSweet-Chew...
Track 40 Quiz Lesson 3 BACKYARDS,PARKS,TOWNS&SUBURBS:
1. Black-capped Chickadee Chickadeedeedee-Hey Sweetie!
2. Purple Martin Downslurred chew-chew,various twittering
3. Rufous Hummingbird Buzzing wingsound & Chuppity-chup
4. House Sparrow Various Chirps and Cheeps
5. American Robin Cheer-up, cheerily, cheer-up...
6. Carolina Chickadee Fee-bee, Fee-bay call,higher BCCH
7. Ruby-throated Hummingbird Buzzy zee-chippity-chippity
8. Tufted Titmouse Whistled Peter-Peter/peer-peer...
9. House Finch Burry warble with harsh zreee
10. Purple Finch Bubbly warble -west richer tone
11. Carolina Wren Tea-kettle,tea-kettle/cherry-cherry
12. House Wren Bubbly/gurgling notes that rise&fall
13. Northern Cardinal Repeated sharp downslurred whistles
14. Northern Mockingbird Various calls repeated 3-6 times
15. Cedar Waxwing High-pitched thin zeee
16. American Crow Cah-cah-cah
17. Common Grackle Harsh,raspy toneless song/check call
Track 15 Quiz: Lesson 4 DECIDUOUS WOODS:
1. Hairy Woodpecker Urgent peek,loud fast rattle,fast drum
2. Northern Flicker Laughing whick-whick/klee-yer call
3. Warbling Vireo Sweet warble with pauses-conversation
4. Ovenbird Rising emphatic Teacher-Teacher
5. Ruffed grouse Like 2/stroke engine starting up
6. Least Flycatcher Sharp oft repeated Che-bek
7. Sapsucker Trio Slowing drum tatto/downslurred churr
8. Red-eyed Vireo Repeated awrble phrases-tiresome bore
9. Yellow-billed Cuckoo Cu-hoo,cu-hoo and wood knocking
10. Rose-breasted Grosbeak Cheer-up, cheerilee-robin-like
11. Downy Woodpecker High flat pik,whinny, slow drum
12. Great-crested Flycatcher Rising wheep,wick-wick,preeet
13. Pileated Woodpecker Loud kek-kek-kek,varying rate
14. American Redstart Tzee-tzee tzee-tzeetzeeo,squeaky
15. Wood Thrush Flute-like ee-o-lee,ee-o-lee
Track 28 Quiz: Lesson 5 OPEN MIXED WOODS & THICKETS:
1. Eastern Wood-Pewee A sing-song pee-a-wee
2. Western Wood-Pewee A high pee-year,slurring downwards
3. Western Tanager Robin with a head cold,perr-dik call
4. Scarlet Tanager Like to Western ,chick-burr call
5. Red-breasted Nuthatch Nasal ank-ank,like toy trumpet
6. White-breasted Nuthatch Series lowmonotone nasal notes
7. Eastern Towhee Drink your tea! Last note trilled
8. Spotted Towhee Sharp metallic notes then harsh trill
9. Red-headed Woodpecker Raspy queer,queerqueer...
10. Red-bellied Woodpecker Deep trilled churr, churr...
11. Baltimore Oriole Peter,peter,here Peter dry rattle
12. Gray Catbird Varied Mocker-like no repeats meow call
13. Brown Thrasher Drop-it,drop-it etc each repeated/twice
14. Swainson\'s Thrush Ascending spiral with echo, Whit-purr
15. Dark-eyed Junco Phone ringing trill, sharp chit call
16. Cassin\'s Vireo Hoarse Jimmy-there you are-Come here
17. Brown-headed Cowbird Glug-glug-glee,thin whistle &trill
Track 43 Quiz:Lesson 6 FARMS,GRASSLANDS,SAVANNAH& PRAIRIE:
1. California Quail Chi-ca-go,Chi-ca-go!and clucking
2. Killdeer Strident cry, sometimes killdeeh
3. AmericanGoldfinch Potato-chip,twitter,canary-like song
4. Barn Swallow Excited chattering with trills & gutterals
5. Savannah Sparrow Tsit-tsit-tsit,tzeee-t\'say,up on tseee
6. Northern Bobwhite Emphatic BobWHITE!BobWHITE!
7. Mourning Dove Mournful oh woe-woe-woe
8. Horned Lark Cheery tinkling with emphatic close
9. White-crowned Sparrow Poor Will peed his pants
10. Black-billed Magpie Question maaagh?raucous wak-wak-wak
11. Red-tailed Hawk Downslurred keeee-r-r, or neigh
12. Western Meadowlark Melodious flute-like song, gurgles
13. Eastern Meadowlark Sing-song spring of the year
14. European Starling Harsh tseer,wolf whistles,mimicry
15. Chipping Sparrow Dull mechanical trill,cell phone
16. Rock Pigeon Heavy duty purring, clapping wing sounds
17. Common Raven Low pitched croaking cruuuk
18. American Kestrel Strident killy-killy or klee-klee
Track 17 Quiz: Lesson 7 CONIFER FOREST & NIGHT BIRDS:
1. Ruby-crowned Kinglet High descend phrases:chubby-chubby
2. Winter Wren Extended bubbly song
3. Pine Siskin Like running nail across teeth of comb
4. Yellow-rumped Warbler Soft loose trill,jumbled at end
5. Hermit Thrush Echoed notes,different pitches, ethereal
6. Blue Jay Jay-jay-jay,queedle-queedle...
7. Steller\'s Jay Rapid fire shack-shack-shack
8. Olive-sided Flycatcher Quick, three beer!
9. Magnolia Warbler Swee-swee-swee-(witsy)weak & variable
10. Golden-crowned Kinglet High notes/sputtering chatter
11. Evening Grosbeak Sharp single whistles tew,tew,tew
12. Common Nighthawk Nasal peent and sonic boom
13. Whip-poor-will Repeated whip-poor-will,whip-poor-will
14. Western Screech Owl Rapid hoots/one pitch like bouncing ping-pong ball
15. Northern Saw-whetOwl Rapid toots-garbage truck backing
16. Great Horned Owl Low-Who\'s awake? Me too!
17. Barred Owl Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?
18. Eastern Screech Owl Mournful whistle, soft tremolo
End of Quiz Answers
Review from the Blue Jay Nature Library
BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO BIRD SONGS OF NORTH AMERICA
JOHN NEVILLE and MEL COULSON. 2007. Audio 3CD set. Neville Recording & Mel Coulson. ISBN: 0-9781797-2-2. www.nevillerecording.com. $33.00 Cdn.
Many people, especially when they first become interested in birds, find identifying bird calls and songs more challenging than identifying the birds which produce them. Anxious to improve their skills, they often turn to the readily available recordings of bird song on CDs, DVDs and the Internet. Most of these sources are collections of hundreds of species, with each given only a few seconds play. These recordings can be helpful if the listener singles out a particular species or a small group of related birds, thrushes, for instance, or grass sparrows. But try to listen to a large number of bird songs, one after another, and the result is almost inevitably frustrating, even destructive. Memory doesn’t work that way.
John Neville, originally from England, realized when he arrived in Canada in 1975, that bird identification of hundreds of new species would involve sound as much as sight, something he had almost unwittingly taken for granted back home where he had begun birding as a boy. Gaining technical proficiency, he began recording birds in British Columbia. His first CD, Birds of the Kootenays, came out in 1994. Since that time he has produced a large number of CDs, including Bird Songs of the Okanagan, Songs and Sounds of the Canadian Rockies, Bird Songs-Western Boreal Forest, and Bird Songs of the Arctic.
A Beginner’s Guide to Bird Songs of North America is perhaps Neville’s most ambitious production to date. Collaborating with Mel Coulson, who does most of the narrating in this 3CD collection, he introduces us to 108 bird species in seven lessons, representative of both Eastern and Western North America, and arranged by habitat groupings. He believes that if you learn how to listen, developing your skills and confidence at the same time, you’ll eventually feel comfortable with the birds in these recordings, and then be ready to take on the others.
Neville’s approach is somewhat different from that in any other series of bird song recordings I’ve listened to. First of all, more time is devoted to each bird song. He also provides an introduction to each species, mentioning predominant habitat, North American distribution and, often, one or more memorable facts about the bird, just enough to assist memory and add interest. Finally, the pace is relaxing. After presenting a group of no more than 10 to 14 species, he provides a quiz, a replay of the bird songs just heard - but in a changed sequence. Before moving on, listeners will likely want to replay that section several times until they feel comfortable with the sounds and can correctly identify all of them. In the last half of Disc 3, he reviews the birds by family: warblers, sparrows, flycatchers, thrushes, and wrens, then finishes with “weird sounds in the reeds” and what he calls the “true songsters.”
Neville’s recordings are of high quality. Interestingly, they retain considerable background song, typical of the habitat in which a specific species is found. Other songs may seem an interference at first, but learning to isolate a particular song amid a chorus of others is exactly what the birder must learn to do. Replaying the song several times is a helpful experience and as the listener becomes more experienced, it is also a challenge to identify other songs in the background.
Most of the species on these discs can be found in Western Canada. Several pairings of the similar songs of Western and Eastern species are not only interesting, but helpful as one grows in birding experience and travels more widely. He introduces us to Eastern and Western Wood Pewees, for instance, Scarlet and Western Tanagers, Western and Eastern Meadowlarks, Eastern and Spotted Towhees, Steller’s and Blue Jays, and Western and Eastern Screech Owls. A small number of the songs sound slightly foreign to my Saskatchewan ear, among them the Spotted Towhee, Common Yellowthroat and Baltimore Oriole. Some of the finest recordings I have ever heard are those of the Olive-sided and Willow Flycatchers, Eastern and Western Kingbirds, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Barred Owl, Common Nighthawk, Swainson’s Thrush, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Pied-billed Grebe, and Sora.
It is important to remember that this three-volume set is not a full catalogue, even of common bird songs. Neville’s intention is to teach people how, when and where to listen and learn. After using these discs, people will feel much more comfortable with the more complete, even though abbreviated calls and songs, in the recordings of Stokes, Peterson and others. Should Neville produce a second set in this series, beginning birders would profit from hearing the rest of the common warblers, and a wide range of shorebirds, marsh birds, gulls, terns, ducks and geese, not found in the present set.
This reasonably priced set will be a boon to beginners here and elsewhere in Canada. Even experienced birders will profit from a close listening; the treatment of the sounds made by Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers is particularly useful.
- Reviewed by J. Frank Roy, 912-606 Victoria Avenue, Saskatoon, SK S7N 0Z1. E-mail:
Cc: \"Neville Recording\"
Sent: Monday, October 29, 2007 1:58 PM
Subject: New and Old Birdsong CDs
> This message concerns a fantastic new 3 CD set - the Beginners Guide to
> Bird Songs of North America which I have been greatly enjoying and a
> \"must have\" reference to bird songs reference Set.
> I am really enjoying the New CD set “Beginners Guide to Bird Songs of
> North America” by John Neville and Mel Coulson. As someone who records
> bird songs I appreciate how difficult it is to obtain such beautiful
> recordings. There are long clips with pneumonics and other hints
> presented to help you remember the songs and calls. I would highly
> recommend this CD to anybody trying to learn their bird songs.
> If you love birds you will want this set of beautiful recordings just to
> enjoy the lovely songs. Knowing the songs and calls of birds can greatly
> increase your outdoor experience. One of the most powerful tools you can
> have is the ability to identify birds by ear if you are serious about
> finding and identifying birds. Your ears can hear a bird which is hidden
> from sight by foliage, reeds, rocks etc. Your ears can hear in all
> directions while your eyes only focus in one direction. Your ears can
> hear at night or in poor light allowing you to identify some of the
> birds singing and calling at night. You will never regret the time and
> effort you put into learning to identify birds by ear. This CD set is a
> powerful tool to help you learn bird songs and calls and to hone your
> In this set, each song or call is presented and usually a pneumonic or
> some other way to help you remember the song well as a long clip of the
> bird singing. Each bird song has a separate track on the CD for easy
> access. There are review sections and quizzes which can be very valuable
> tools to help you learn to bird by ear.
> One big problem facing anybody who creates a CD set for learning bird
> songs is how to arrange the birds on the CD – some have used field guide
> order, some prefer organizing the songs by habitat, and to some group
> similar sounding birds together. On this CD Neville and Coulson have
> reached a very happy compromise. In the first part of the CD set the
> birds are presented by habitat with a quiz at the end of each section
> for you to review and test yourself. These sections include: Lakes,
> Ponds and Rivers; Marsh and riparian; Backyards, Parks, Towns and
> suburbs; Deciduous woods; Open Mixed-woods and Thickets; Farms,
> Grasslands, Savannah and Prairie. At the end of each section is a quiz
> on what you have just learned. One hundred and eight of the more common
> birds are covered in these sections organized by habitat.
> After all of the birds are covered by habitat there are review sections
> where the birds are grouped as Warblers, Sparrows with some regional
> dialects included, Flycatchers, Thrushes, Wrens, Sounds of Birds in the
> reeds, and a group called the “True Songsters”.
> This 3 CD set can be purched online from www.nevillerecording.com for
> 33 Dollars or email email@example.com for wholesale pricelist.
> I know I have plugged this \"Must Have\" before but if you do not have
> BOTH the Eastern (3CD set) and the Western (5 CD set ) of Birdsongs of
> Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs you are really missing out. If you are
> in Alberta you need both the eastern and the western set because our
> mainly boreal forest birds are on the Eastern Set and the Prairie birds
> on the Western set (except the Spraigues Pipit which is only on the
> eastern set. This wonderful bird song collection (8 CDs total is
> available on Amazon for about $50 (about $25 per set) Order both and the
> shipping is free. Search in Books at Amazon and not CDs. The ISBN of the
> Western Guide is 1570425884 and the Eastern guide 1570424837. Put it on
> your list to Santa if you do not already have them. This set is far
> superior to anyother set on the market. (believe me I have them all) The
> Stokes birding books are certainly not my first choice as a reference
> but Kevin Colver and Langue Elliott have done a fantastic Job on these
> CDs. They do not only have recordings of the main songs but often
> alternate songs and calls and frequently illustrate the regional
> variation in the vocalizations where they occur. These recordings are
> far superior to those in the Peterson Set. Many more birds are recorded.
> There are more regional dialects (read that as our dialect instead of an
> eastern one) and many more calls. These CDs are a real bargin.
> Barbara Beck