Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Le Conte's Sparrow: Losing a Favorite Sound

Le Conte's Sparrow

One of my all-time favorite birds is Le Conte’s Sparrow. This tiny grassland bird was an important part of the birdlife I so loved at my mother-in-law’s place in Port Wing. When her house was sold, I felt utterly bereft and still feel deep pangs of homesickness.

Ryan Brady, a wildlife biologist and amazing birder in Wisconsin, has been working tirelessly on Wisconsin’s Breeding Bird Atlas, and some of the areas he’s been searching intensively have been in my old stomping grounds. The day I got home from Panama, he posted photos and sound recordings he’d made that very day of Le Conte’s Sparrows on Kinney Valley Road, including right in what I’d for so long felt was *my* field. It was already July 19, and I was so exhausted from my trip that I simply couldn’t get up early on Saturday. But I woke at 3 am on Sunday, made some coffee, and headed out.

I didn’t drive fast—there were too many deer on the road for that—but I still made it to Kinney Valley Road before the sky started brightening. It was a perfect morning—clear, with no wind whatsoever. For as late in the season as it was, several birds were singing persistently—a robin, an Alder Flycatcher, Sedge Wrens, crows, a Savannah Sparrow. And yep—with my hearing aids cranked up to their loudest setting and my powered shotgun microphone and headphones with the volume set high, I could hear one or maybe two Le Conte’s Sparrows. I was disappointed that there weren’t more, but figured I was lucky to hear any singing birds at all on July 21. I couldn’t get a direction on the sound and couldn’t see any, but I made a few recordings. Then I went off to Big Pete Road.

After that, at the Quarry Beach, I ran into Ryan Brady himself. He’d birded on Kinney Valley Road that morning, too, after I’d been there. I could see some surprise in his eyes when I said I’d heard only one or two Le Conte’s Sparrows—he’d heard several. It seemed a mystery—Le Conte’s Sparrows do most of their singing before other birds are piping in, often while it’s still quite dark, so it should have been me, not Ryan, who’d heard more.

When I went home, I checked out my recordings on my computer. My sound editing program shows the spectrographs of the sounds I’m editing, and there before me was visual proof that my ears are not what they used to be—I could clearly SEE the little blocks of Le Conte’s Sparrow songs on the spectrograph that my ears could not pick out.

Le Conte's Sparrow songs on a spectrograph

So from now on I’m not going to be able to count on either hearing aids or my recording headphones to find Le Conte’s Sparrows, and I’m only going to be hearing them marginally at best. I’m going to have to rely on my trusty old Bird Finder—the set up designed by Lang Elliott that lowers the frequency of high-pitched songs to bring them into my hearing range—to find them reliably.  

Here are three songs of Le Conte’s Sparrow that I recorded Sunday—I edited out all the lower-frequency sounds to help them stand out.  Their song extends to over 10 kHz, and is not made up of pure tones, making it hard for many ears to pick up.

Here’s how that same recording sounds after going through the Bird Finder. To make it, I used my sound editing software to reduce the frequency by exactly half. It sounds different, so I’ll have to re-learn my basic high-pitched sounds and will barely ever hear the endearing little hiss I love so much, but at least I’ll be able to locate Le Conte’s Sparrows in the field.

This is one of those tragic turning points in life when we know that going forward we’ll never be able to see someone or do something we’ve deeply loved ever again. I feel as bereft as I did three decades ago when I weaned my third child and knew I’d never again nurse a baby. But my son was thriving and I was enjoying his development into a toddler—I was giving up one stage to move into what was an even better one. This time no new, lovely experience is coming along to replace hearing that endearing Le Conte’s Sparrow hiss.

I’ve been given more than a decade of life more than my little sister or my father had, and a few years more than my big brother. I’m grateful to be alive at all, and realize that many people have never ever been able to hear Le Conte’s Sparrows or to see them, so in the overall scheme of the universe, I’m very lucky. And for the duration, I’ll at least be able to hear that sweet little sound in my dreams.

Le Conte's Sparrow