Last week I visited Finland to attend the NightinGala conference in Järvenpää. The event was quite an interesting mixture of the science and music of bird song. I was also able to enjoy listening to birds in Finland, where to me the birds were a mixture of the familiar, the slightly familiar and the new.
Following the recent post about sound identification, I was confronted with some different problems of knowing to those I encountered in America. What I often found was that I was less confident about knowing even bird sounds that seemed familiar because of the different circumstances. Sometimes this was down to the birds singing with noticeably different ‘dialects’, and this was apparent with Chaffinch (as it usually is), Willow Warbler and Whitethroat. In all these cases, the birds were still easy to recognise but sometimes I was caught out. A Yellowhammer singing an abridged version of its song on the edge of a pine forest in Lapland had me confused for a while before I saw it. I found myself immediately thinking it sounded like a Yellowhammer but that it wasn’t quite right, so maybe it could be something else. This ’something else’ factor was perhaps the main reason why I had trouble identifying sounds I’m otherwise familiar with. A Song Thrush singing deep in the forests of Lapland had me troubled, even though I ‘recognised’ it as having the familiar repeated structure. What bothered me was whether there were other birds in the northern forests that might sing in a similar way. I’m not very familiar with the songs of Fieldfare and Redwing, both of which breed in the area, so I felt that I needed to be sure I wasn’t hearing a variant of one of those species of thrush (and I was later to learn that there are a lot of variants in Redwing song!). In all these cases I was eventually able to be pretty confident of what bird was making the sound, but the problem was that I was unfamiliar with the context. In Britain, I can be much more certain of what I’m hearing because I’m also familiar with the other sounds I’m likely to hear in most places. In Finland I’m aware that there are birds that make sounds I don’t know, and maybe some of them sound like birds that I think know. What all this suggests is that ‘knowing’ a sound is made by a particular kind of bird is a very contingent knowing. Knowing a Song Thrush in your neighbourhood is one kind of knowing, but knowing it everywhere is another.
If I’d have stayed in Finland a little bit longer, I might have had the opportunity to travel over to the Russian border to hear the extraordinary sound of Europe’s first Swinhoe’s Snipe.