Voices of a Flyway

Sound Devices interviewed Dr. Jacob Job, principal investigator of the Voices of a Flyway project about how the MixPre-6 was the perfect tool for his research.

S.D.: Tell us about “Voices of a Flyway.

Voices of a Flyway examines the mutual challenges that migratory birds and humans face due to human activity on the planet. Our project stimulates active, mindful listening to nature; reintroduces us to the species and places of our past; deepens our connection to the natural world; and heals our collective mindset about our place within it. 

More and more, we find ourselves living in urban centers, removed from the natural landscapes we evolved alongside. This has led to a sensory disconnect from nature, threatening global biodiversity conservation. Voices of a Flyway is our attempt to rekindle a deeper connection with nature so we can embrace sustainable lifestyles that foster healthy global ecosystems, ensure future flows of ecosystem services, and maintain human well-being.

Over the course of two months we embarked on a journey, traveling north with a billion migratory songbirds as they navigate a matrix of human-impacted ecosystems from the Gulf Coast to the boreal forests of northern Minnesota. ​​Concurrently, we spoke to people sharing the land with these birds. Together we are aiming to tell a story that speaks to the beauty of nature and the common bond that migratory birds and humans have with the land, including the struggles we both face living in a modern world. 

A combination of ultra-rich, immersive audio and high-resolution, intimate photography will form the media we use to bring this story to life in its most captivating and honest form. Our final products will include an online story map, podcast series, and speaking tour in the communities that we visit.

How is the project going?

So far so good. We spent almost 2.5 months on the road, covering over 5,000 miles from coastal Louisiana up to the Minnesota/Canada border. We collected hundreds of hours of recordings of species, people, and entire soundscapes in six ecosystems in peril. Since completing field work in June 2019, we recently finished production in April of the six interactive web experiences and seven episode podcast series. It’s still too early to know what our reach will be, but the early returns are encouraging.

What gear did you use?

The heart of the project was my MixPre-6. Every audio recording we made was on this recorder. To capture the interviews with people we used Audio-Technica AT899 lavalier microphones. For recordings of bird song or other focal species (frogs, wolves, etc..), we used a combination of Wildtronics Parabolic Stereo Microphone and Rode NTG3 shotgun microphone. Finally, for recordings of soundscapes (i.e. dawn choruses, thunderstorm, wind through the trees, etc..), I used two Sennheiser MKH20 omnidirectional microphones placed in a homemade binaural type housing.

How did the MixPre help on the project?

The MixPre-6 was where the recording magic happened. The songs of the birds, the sounds of the land, and the stories of the people. In a way, it was the heart and soul of the audio portion of the project. I trusted it to help create pristine, accurate, and vibrant recordings of my subjects, which it did beautifully! I also relied on it to perform under a variety of field conditions. We worked in temperatures ranging from below freezing to nearly 90 degrees, as well as in extremely humid conditions of the Deep South. I never once had a problem with performance of the MixPre-6.

How do you capture these sounds? Do you visually ID the bird first then move towards it or start with the sounds and move in? Is it a combination of both?

Luckily, I know the sounds of all the birds of the eastern United States, so if I hear one, I know immediately which species it is. Our goal was to gather audio recordings of as many species of birds as we could. I ended up recording over 75 species.

Most of our work began pre-dawn, around 4 am and often extended into the nighttime hours. It’s true, the early bird gets the worm. The worm in this case is numerous, awesome recordings of birds and dawn choruses.

What changes have affected both human and bird populations?

Where do I begin? The biggest issue the birds face is habitat loss. Most of the native habitats of this continent have been reduced by 90% or more. Urbanization, agriculture, and various industries have all had a hand in that. Unfortunately, we are learning that these ecosystems also play very important roles for human health. They clean our air and water, provide food and natural medicines, and offer cultural, recreational, and relaxation opportunities. So as these ecosystems continue to disappear, so do these ecosystem services. This greatly impacts human health. 

The other big issue is climate change. The timing of bird migration and nesting behavior has been finely tuned by evolution over eons of time. As the climate changes, so have the patterns of weather and biological processes that birds rely upon, such as insect hatches that are so important to fuel them during their migratory journeys and to feed their offspring. Humans too are feeling these effects for so many reasons. If we stick with the food theme, climate change is negatively impacting our ability to grow and harvest food across the globe.

In total, we have lost nearly 3 billion birds over the last half century and it’s getting worse. Likewise, humans are having a harder time making a living across the planet and it’s costing people their homes and their lives.

How has human noise and interference changed since you’ve began studying migratory patterns? Does this affect the birds?

Birds use a number of mechanisms to navigate while migrating. They use starlight, polarized light from the sun, the earth’s magnetic field, visual landmarks, and some auditory cues. Light pollution has had the greatest negative impact on bird migration. The majority of birds migrate at night and rely heavily on light from the stars and other polarized light to navigate. Light pollution greatly interferes with this. Not as much is known about noise pollution and how it impacts migration. However, some birds do seem to use auditory cues to navigate, so it stands to reason that noise pollution could impact this ability.

How can we be better stewards of the environment?

Start small. Concentrate on your own impact. Begin by consuming less of everything. Try to switch to reusable products whenever possible. Buy products with as little packaging as possible. If your utility company offers renewable energy, take them up on that offer, despite the cost, if you can. The more we consume, the more habitat we have to cut into to extract those resources. 

Next, create habitat. Remove as much of your turf grass as your willing to and plant native species instead. Reach out to conservation groups to see how you can get involved with restoration projects. Contact your local representatives and demand that they speak up for habitat and thus, the overall environment that we all share with the many species on this earth.

Finally, create future stewards of the land. Talk to your neighbors. Get to know how they like to engage with the outdoors or how they rely on healthy ecosystems. The better we start to understand these connections, the better we are able to take the necessary steps to prevent severing these connections. Take a friend or family member into a natural space and learn about it together. Take kids outdoors! Learn the species of plants and animals together. Learn what you like and don’t like. Become familiar with the natural world that so many of us have lost a connection to, so that the next time you go out, it’s more familiar and welcoming.

Any advice for someone looking to get into studying birds/ecology?

It all starts with getting outdoors, first and foremost. Begin to reintroduce yourself to our wild places on your own terms. Buy a field guide for the birds, amphibians, trees, etc.. of your area. Once you’ve done that, get involved with groups like the National Audubon Society or the Nature Conservancy. They offer all sorts of opportunities to get involved with and learn about the natural world.

If you want to take it a step further, start reading books by famous naturalists such as E.O. Wilson, Aldo Leopold, Terry Tempest Williams, Sigurd Olson. Although it’s a lot of work, you could take my route, and end up with graduate degrees in ecology and evolution. I can emphasize that education has vastly expanded my understanding of our place and impacts on this planet.

For more information, visit voicesofaflyway.com/about or visit the Voices of a Flyway Instagram.

Sound Devices was proud to provide Dr. Job and his team a MixPre-6 to aid in his research.