Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Old Gray Mare, She Ain't What She Used to Be.

Golden-winged Warbler
(Transcript of today's For the Birds)

I spent last week at Hunt Hill Audubon Sanctuary, in Sarona, Wisconsin, as part of a brand new birding camp. I’ve lived up here for 30 years now, but am sorry to admit I’d never visited the Audubon camp before. I had no clue that it was so exceptionally rich in habitats. I could stand in one spot, right in the parking lot, and hear Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Scarlet Tanagers, and Golden-winged Warblers.

Well, I could barely just hear those Golden-wings. I’ve been noticing in the past three years or so that I’m losing a bit of hearing in the higher ranges. I teach an elderhostel class every summer at Trees for Tomorrow in Eagle River, Wisconsin, and Troy Walters, the young man who teaches it with me, now usually picks out the higher songs like Golden-crowned Kinglet and Blackburnian Warbler at closer range than I can. This year I did quite a bit of birding with my son Tom. It was disconcerting to realize that he could hear several birds that I simply could not pick out.

But when I was at Hunt Hill, I was hit full force with the realization that I don’t perceive some of the higher notes at all anymore. Storme Nelson, the Audubon camp director, asked me about a sound he was hearing, which sounded like a three-note lisp. It wasn’t for many minutes of hard listening that I realized it was Golden-winged Warblers. I wasn’t hearing the higher-pitched first note at all, and was missing enough of the higher tones in the triplet that those notes sounded entirely different in quality.

I took some consolation in reading the Golden-winged Warbler entry in the Birds of North America, where it says that the first note is often left out of songs by mid-season. But then I played a recording just to see how close I had to be to hear the song properly, and practically had to have the speaker at my ear to hear the first note.

The Golden-winged Warbler song is not as high as many others—the notes are below 10,000 kilohertz, while 20,000 kilohertz is considered the upper limits of human hearing. That means I may have been missing lots of other birds this year. There is a hearing aid called the Song Finder that lowers the frequencies of extremely high notes without amplifying them. I know several birders who swear by them. The Song Finder is only recommended for people who still hear well at mid-range. For example, if you can’t hear robins, it won’t help. All it does is lowers the frequency of the highest-pitches of birds, insects, and other sounds. That will make Golden-winged Warblers audible to me, but I’ll have to relearn their song—the pattern will remain the same, but the tone quality will sound completely different at a lower pitch. I’ve taken a lot of pride in my hearing, and a deep, rich pleasure in hearing these lovely sounds. So I’m grieving more than I expected for losing one of the auditory pleasures I’ve treasured for so long. I’m vastly consoled that once I drum up the $750 the Song Finder costs, I will again be able to identify all my favorite birds, even if they sound different.

Fortunately, a couple of Hunt Hill’s Golden-winged Warblers came out for me to see, and I’ve posted photos at