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"In terms of speed and the breadth of material now accessible to anyone in the world, this is really revolutionary," says audio curator Greg Budney, describing a major milestone just achieved by the Macaulay Library archive at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. All archived analog recordings in the collection, going back to 1929, have now been digitized and can be heard at www.MacaulayLibrary.org

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"This is one of the greatest research and conservation resources at the Cornell Lab," said Budney. "And through its digitization we’ve swung the doors open on it in a way that wasn’t possible 10 or 20 years ago."

It took archivists a dozen years to complete the monumental task. The collection contains nearly 150,000 digital audio recordings equaling more than 10 terabytes of data with a total run time of 7,513 hours. About 9,000 species are represented. There’s an emphasis on birds, but the collection also includes sounds of whales, elephants, frogs, primates and more.

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"Our audio collection is the largest and the oldest in the world," explained Macaulay Library director Mike Webster. "Now, it’s also the most accessible. We’re working to improve search functions and create tools people can use to collect recordings and upload them directly to the archive. Our goal is to make the Macaulay Library as useful as possible for the broadest audience possible."

The recordings are used by researchers studying many questions, as well as by birders trying to fine-tune their sound ID skills. The recordings are also used in museum exhibits, movies and commercial products such as smartphone apps.

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"Now that we’ve digitized the previously archived analog recordings, the archival team is focusing on new material from amateur and professional recordists from around the world to really, truly build the collection," Budney said. "Plus, it’s just plain fun to listen to these sounds. Have you heard the sound of a walrus underwater?  It’s an amazing sound." 

Sample some fascinating Macaulay Library sounds:

Earliest recording: Cornell Lab founder Arthur Allen was a pioneer in sound recording. On a spring day in 1929 he recorded this Song Sparrow sounding much as they do today

Youngest bird: This clip from 1966 records the sounds of an Ostrich chick while it is still inside the egg – and the researchers as they watch

Liveliest wake-up call: A dawn chorus in tropical Queensland, Australia is bursting at the seams with warbles, squeals, whistles, booms and hoots

Best candidate to appear on a John Coltrane record: The indri, a lemur with a voice that is part moan, part jazz clarinet

Most spines tingled: The incomparable voice of a Common Loon on an Adirondacks lake in 1992

Most erratic construction project: the staccato hammering sounds of a walrus under water

Most likely to be mistaken for aliens arriving: Birds-of-paradise make some amazing sounds – here’s the UFO-sound of a Curl-crested Manucode in New Guinea

An endangered African forest elephant named “Valentine” is alive and well after being glimpsed only once in the past year. The youngster, born Feb. 15, 2012, recently returned to the clearing where he was born, just in time for this year’s Valentine’s Day. Because of unceasing demand for their high-quality ivory tusks, the population of African forest elephants has plummeted from a peak of about 1 million to only 100,000 today. Peter Wrege, who leads the Elephant Listening Project at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, says adopting an elephant family for Valentine’s Day is one way we can help this species survive.

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More information on the Elephant Adoption Program

For the first time, anyone anywhere in the world with Internet access can participate in the annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), running from Feb. 15-18. Participants simply watch birds at any location for at least 15 minutes, tally the numbers of each species they see, and report their tallies online at BirdCount.org. The GBBC is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon, with Canadian partner Bird Studies Canada. 

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Florida Scrub Jay and Friend

This year, anyone visiting the GBBC website will be able to see bird observations pouring in from around the world and contribute their own tallies. Global participation will be made possible thanks to eBird, a real-time online checklist program that the Cornell Lab and Audubon are integrating into the GBBC for the first time this year.

The GBBC is open to anyone of any skill level and welcomes bird observations from any location, including backyards, national parks, gardens, wetlands, and urban landscapes. The four-day count typically receives sightings from tens of thousands of people reporting more than 600 bird species in the United States and Canada alone. 

"We’re eager to see how many of the world’s 10,240 bird species will be reported during the count this year," said Cornell Lab director John Fitzpatrick. "We’re looking forward to this historic snapshot of birds that that will be reported from around the world. We need as many people as possible to help build the wealth of data that scientists need to track the health of bird populations through time."

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Guide to Common Birds

Participants will be able to view what others are seeing on interactive maps and contribute their tallies for ongoing bird research and conservation efforts. For the first time, participants will also be able to upload their counts from the field using the eBird BirdLog app for Apple or Android smartphones. To celebrate the new global reach of the count, developers of the eBird BirdLog app are offering regional versions of the app for 99 cents through February 18. 

"This count is so much fun because anyone can take part, whether you are an expert, novice, or feeder watcher," said Gary Langham, Audubon’s Chief Scientist. “Invite new birders to join and share the experience. Once you get involved, you can continue with eBird year round.”

"The popularity of the Great Backyard Bird Count grows each year," said Dick Cannings, Senior Projects Officer at Bird Studies Canada, "and with the new features, participation will be even more exciting."

Participating is easy. To learn more about how to join the count, get bird ID tips, plus downloadable instructions, web buttons, and flyers, visit BirdCount.org. The count also includes a photo contest and a prize drawing for participants who enter at least one bird checklist online. Portions of the GBBC site are also now available in Spanish at ContandoAves.org.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is made possible in part by sponsor Wild Birds Unlimited

Cornell Lab releases unprecedented video of the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper 

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has collected the first known comprehensive video documentation of one of the world’s rarest birds on its tundra breeding grounds in Chukotka, Russia, and posted the video online at www.birds.cornell.edu/sbs. Cornell Lab videographer Gerrit Vyn captured footage of the first moments when Spoon-billed Sandpiper chicks venture away from their nest.

The little spoon-bills are some of the last of their kind. The global Spoon-billed Sandpiper population has plummeted to about 100 breeding pairs, with the population declining by 25 percent annually in recent years. At that rate, the species could be extinct within a decade. The spoon-bill topped a recent International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) global list of species closest to extinction.  

"The Spoon-billed Sandpiper is one of the most remarkable little birds on earth, and it may go extinct before most people even realize it was here," said John Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. "We hope that with this priceless video footage we quickly connect people, conservation organizations, and governments to these amazing birds, and galvanize an international conservation effort."

In 2011, the Cornell Lab dispatched videographer Gerrit Vyn to join an expedition with Birds Russia and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force to Chukotka in extreme northeastern Russia where the tundra borders the Bering Sea. Vyn’s assignment was to record the first-ever high-definition video and sound recordings of spoon-bills on their breeding grounds, for archival into the Lab’s Macaulay Library (the world’s oldest and largest biodiversity media archive). Vyn spent eight weeks during the months of June and July documenting their breeding cycle, from arriving on spring migration to courtship and nesting to raising young (videos posted at www.birds.cornell.edu/sbs).

Vyn wrote about his experience in an article for the winter 2013 issue of the Lab’s Living Bird magazine.

"These videos, still photographs, and sound recordings might well be the 21st-century digital equivalent of a Passenger Pigeon specimen in a museum. But … I wanted my videos and photographs to be more than just a final record of a lost species for the archives. I hoped they would serve as a way to finally introduce this enigmatic and charming species to the world – to enlist peoples’ aid in a global effort to save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper."

Scientists believe Spoon-billed Sandpipers are declining primarily because of the elimination of migratory stopover habitat along Southeast Asian seacoasts, particularly in the Yellow Sea region, and due to subsistence hunting by people on spoon-bill wintering grounds on the coastal mudflats of China, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and other nearby countries.

The Spoon-billed Sandpiper population has been monitored on their breeding grounds on the Russian tundra since 1977, when a survey estimated 2,500 breeding pairs in Chukotka. By 2003 the population had dropped to around 500 pairs. In 2008 the IUCN listed the species as critically endangered on its Red List.

Vyn said that he hopes the plight of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper also awakens global attention to the crisis along the entire East Asian–Australasian Flyway, where an estimated 51 percent of China’s coastal wetlands have been lost, as well as 60 percent of South Korea’s coastal wetlands. More than 100 waterbird species use the East Asian–Australasian Flyway, and it contains more IUCN-listed globally threatened and near threatened bird species than any other flyway in the world.

"Through its devastating population crash, the tiny Spoon-billed Sandpiper is telling us that the Yellow Sea is rapidly passing the tipping point," wrote Vyn.

Vyn’s participation in the expedition was funded by contributions by The Melinda Whener estate to the Cornell Lab.

Over the past 30 years, Tree Swallows, Barn Swallows, Purple Martins and Eastern Phoebes have dropped in number. The cause remains unknown, though scientists believe it may be linked in part to declines in the insects that birds eat. 

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Anyone who loves watching birds can help scientists study and understand their plight by participating in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s NestWatch citizen-science project (NestWatch.org). 

“Every year, thousands of volunteers from across the United States monitor bird nests to help researchers track changes in bird populations,” says Dr. Jason Martin, NestWatch project coordinator. “By keeping track of how many eggs birds lay and how many young they raise, anyone can contribute valuable data that may help lead to the conservation of these species.”

“Recent population declines in North America’s aerial insectivores are a growing concern,” said Dr. Amanda Rodewald, director of Conservation Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Conservation efforts to halt or reverse these worrisome trends are unlikely to succeed until we fully understand the causes of decline. One thing limiting our ability to identify factors driving population declines is a lack of information on reproduction.”

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Join Now and Count!

The nests of many birds are easy to find and observe. Tree Swallows readily use nest boxes. Barn Swallows often plaster their nests onto beams inside barns and under bridges. Purple Martins use large communal nesting houses, and Eastern Phoebes frequently nest under porch eaves and in garages.

Participating in NestWatch is free and easy. Information on where and when to look for nests and how to properly monitor them is available at NestWatch.org. NestWatch accepts observations for all nesting birds, so information about any species is welcome.

Putting a name to a bird is one of the thrills of bird watching. But that’s a real challenge when it comes to raptors, with their changing plumages, deceptive sizes, and tendency to be seen at a distance. The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors, now available from Princeton University Press, features North American raptors in gorgeous double-page layouts that show the birds in varying light, different plumages, and from many vantage points.

“There are a lot of books out there that provide plumage details, but I really like the way Richard Crossley creates these panoramas showing birds in their habitat,” says co-author Brian Sullivan, co-leader of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird project. “I really enjoyed writing the introductions to each species account with Jerry Liguori. We tried to capture the essence of the bird in these vignettes through varying perspectives, and the species accounts are geared to simplify the identification of this notoriously challenging group.”

The key to raptor ID in most cases begins with shape, Sullivan points out. “Learning to distinguish the shapes of the different groups of raptors can help you quickly limit your choices, after which you can focus on more subtle flight style differences and broad plumage patterns.”

From the Red-tailed Hawk, to the Bald Eagle, Mississippi Kite, Osprey, and the Turkey Vulture, this new book spotlights the 34 species of North American diurnal raptors. With hawk migration now underway, these powerful, charismatic birds can be found in cities, suburbs, and country settings. There are many opportunities to test yourself with “mystery plates” scattered throughout the book.

“People love working out puzzles because they are fun and because they help us improve at whatever we do,” says Richard Crossley.  “The sense of accomplishment and understanding that come from figuring out the answer for ourselves is a powerful incentive to spend more time learning about and appreciating nature.”

The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors is available online and in book stores. Grab a copy, get inspired, and go hawk-watching! Also check the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Facebook page for raptor quizzes  during April.

Red-tailed Hawks.
In the early morning hours of Monday April 22, two of the hawk eggs hatched. Even before the young were out of their shells, Big Red and Ezra started bringing food to the nest. In this video, Big Red delicately feeds their young by tearing the prey into small pieces, giving the hatchlings just a little bit at a time. The hawks appear to be bringing a range of prey for their young; birds, snakes and rodents. In this video the young are just over a day old and are being fed what looks like a small rodent. 

Watch live at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.