Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Stories for Those with Ears to Hear...

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The first of two posts about a pilot Birdswing project I was fortunate to be involved with for three days last week.

The weather was superb and the birds singing. We set off from Garboldisham Primary School to Broomscot Common on the southern edge of the village. Garboldisham Primary has a strong tradition of using the Common for a wide range of environmental activities, so our project was building on firm foundations.

The main objective for the morning session was for each team of four children to collect birdsong data from five locations around the Common. The data consisted of: sound recordings of birdsong, photographs of the location,  marking the data's whereabouts on an aerial view of the common, and notes about the data and initial bird identifications.
A range of recording equipment was used, iPod, iPhones, Android phone and the real deal - Peter Cowdrey's parabolic recording gear pictured below right.

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Peter estimates the cost of this gear at around £600/700.  Given his
experience and the equipment it's perhaps unsurprising that the quality of his recordings was excellent. But the cost  puts it well beyond the reach of most schools. So, determined to find a cheap alternative, I turned to Professor Google. Low-cost readymade microphones are little more than toys and still not seriously cheap. My target was to find something under £20. I found this DIY video and decided to give it a try. 

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Since I was planning to use my phone as the recording device I needed an adaptor to allow the microphone to input into the headphone output. I also thought it might be handy to be able to plug in headphones so I added a Headset splitter/adapter to the kit. The whole thing came to well under £20 and the setup can be seen above right.
This is a sample of sound the children recorded on my phone, using the umbrellaphone and the Android app: Hi-Q MP3 Rec (Free).  Ideally I would have used the Soundcloud app and uploaded the recordings straight to Soundcloud, but we weren't sure about the phone signal and knew the recordings would need to be normalised in Audacity.


I'm sure this device improves on the quality of the birdsong recording that could be achieved with a phone alone. It can be easily deconstructed or reconstructed in 10 minutes and is thus easy to store in a cupboard until it's needed for the next project. It certainly adds a more professional, purposeful feel to the process which is important when working with children. I did find the lengthy cables problematic when trailing through the undergrowth and did not use the headphones on the second and third day, but they could be fairly simply shortened with wire bag closures or cable ties. The extra length also means the equipment could be shared by two children - one pointing the microphone and listening, the other operating the recorder.

Our original idea was to take pictures of the location where the birds were singing but we ended up with rather a lot of anonymous trees.  We considered using click-and-drag panoramic pictures like the Photosynth one below. Many newer digital cameras will create panoramas and there are several apps (mostly free) that can be used with smart phones. However since the intention was to use both sound and images to make an interactive map with Zeega (see below) which does not currently support click-and-drag panoramas, that option was out for us. It would good for a blog or website though as it conveys a better sense of place than a single still image.


After the hard work of data collection, we had a break before Peter led us on a listening walk. The children and I were puzzled when he pointed to a tree and told us a blue tit was feeding her young there. Look as we might we could see nothing. How did he know? He had heard the call of the bird and the sound of her young's response. That walk made me feel my sense of hearing was atrophied, which, I suppose in a way, it is. If the children learned nothing else on those mornings it was that the 'background' noise we all mostly ignore is telling stories to those with the ears to hear them.

The team carefully edited  and labelled all the media files over lunch, so that when I got home that evening, I set about creating the interactive map where we hoped to display our data. Regular readers of this blog will know I've been raving about Zeega for some time. Since they recently chose my 'Kisstory' for a display in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I will hear no ill spoken of them. However, I was not best pleased to discover that the hotspot-style links had disappeared from the editor to be replaced by one text-only link per page. A frantic tweet to @zeega produced an impressively swift response - that multiple links were planned soon and when I suggested that a symbol font would be useful for this purpose, that too was promised. I'll post an update as soon as I've created the map.