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In Which Someone Proposes Red-breasted Nuthatch for the March Calls

Someone recently proposed Red-breasted Nuthatch as the source of the March calls and pointed me to this clip.

It’s worth listening to the recording in tandem with some of our putative ivorybill calls. The pitches do sound close.

The habitat isn’t really right for Red-breasted Nuthatch. I’ve never encountered any in the search area, even during irruptions, and the area from which the calls were coming has no conifers. The two calls I heard did not sound like nuthatches to me, and Matt Courtman, who knows the species well, categorically rules out nuthatch of any kind. Nevertheless, I took the opportunity to revisit the sonograms and listen to a whole lot of nuthatch calls.

There’s definitely a similarity, but I’d describe the Red-breasted Nuthatch calls as being buzzier in quality. The harmonics are dramatically different, which accounts for the difference in sound.

For those unfamiliar with sonograms, the X axis is time (in seconds) and the Y axis is frequency.

Red-breasted Nuthatch toots consistently have a fundamental frequency of around 1000 hz; most of our recorded calls have a fundamental that’s closer to 500-600. The strongest emphasis in our calls is on the third partial, usually between 1600-1900 hz. Most of the emphasis in the RBNU calls is on the fourth and fifth partials, in the 2500-3500 hz range; these partials, when visible, are much weaker in our putative ivorybill recordings.

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Typical Red-breasted Nuthatch sonogram. Note the weak fundamental at over 1000 hz and the strong 4th and 5th partials.

 

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Putative Ivory-billed Woodpecker recording, March 15, 2017. Three calls are visible to the left of the white vertical line. Note the stronger fundamental frequency at around 500-600 hz, the weaker second partial, the strong third, and faint, weaker higher partials.

Finally, for reference, it’s worth checking out the White-breasted Nuthatch, both the call and the sonogram. As discussed in a previous post, White-breasted Nuthatches are present in the area, and a number of their faint calls are captured on the recording.

Screen Shot 2017-07-02 at 8.29.26 AM

White-breasted Nuthatch sonogram, showing a weak first partial at approximately 1000hz, strong second and third partials, and somewhat weaker fourths.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that Tanner suggested that ivorybill calls were more like Red-breasted Nuthatches, while Hasbrouck described them as being “exactly like the note of the White-breasted Nuthatch”. I’m still on a learning curve when it comes to bioacoustics, but the harmonic structure of White-breasted call seems closer to known ivorybill calls than is the call of the Red-breasted.

The difference in tonal quality that was apparent to my ears is explained very succinctly on the Earbirding blog:

All nasal sounds are stacks of partials, but not all stacks of partials sound nasal. The tone quality of a complex sound depends on which partials are loudest—that is, darkest on the spectrogram.

The higher the darkest line in a stack, the more nasal the sound.

Known ivorybill calls have a strong 3rd partial and are on the less nasal side of the nasal spectrum; the strength of the 3rd partial became more apparent when the Singer Tract calls were played back and recorded at a distance of 145 meters. Red-breasted Nuthatch calls with their strong 4th and 5th partials are considerably more nasal. The White-breasted falls in between, with strong 3rd and 4th partials.

Tanner wrote that the calls of the ivorybill are “much longer and pitched higher than the White-breasted Nuthatch” and “are more in the range of the Red-breasted Nuthatch”. To reiterate a point made previously, this suggests that typical “kents” were of considerably longer duration than the calls on the Singer Tract recordings, as is the case with the calls Phil and Matt recorded in March. This is important to note, since Cornell, following the Singer Tract recordings, has assumed a duration of 60-100 milliseconds for ivorybill kents, whereas kent-like Red-breasted Nuthatch calls are much longer, often upwards of 300 ms, and White-breasteds seem to be in the 100-200 ms range. One outside reviewer provided durations for eight of the calls we recorded, and they vary considerably, from ~80 ms to ~350 ms.

Whatever these mystery sounds may have been, I’m sure they’re not Red-breasted Nuthatch. They’re not White-breasted Nuthatch either. Nor are they a good match for Blue Jay or Turkey. Carefully considered, serious suggestions are welcome.

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