Call it the iBird.David Ascanio, ornithologist, birder and tour leader, has been listening for, identifying, and “fishing” for birds for over 20 years. In 1984, he ascended Mount Roraima with a hiking group, and helped produce the first contemporary record of a roraiman nightjar (Caprimulgus whitelyi
He has guided treks and tours in Guyana, Suriname, Panama and across Perú, Colombia and Brazil. In 1999, he was on the team that rediscovered another poorly-known species, the plain-flanked rail (Rallus wetmorei), considered highly threatened by IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species.
So when he discovered an advertisement for the first iPod in a magazine, he was hooked.
“My field is bioacoustics and the goal is to [record] the largest number of species,” says Ascanio, one of three Venezuelan ornithologists on Conservation International’s (CI) recent Cuyuni River Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) survey to Venezuela. Bioacoustics is the study of animal sounds, and over the years, Ascanio has collected and identified recordings of more than 500 hours of bird vocalizations.
“That’s basically my job on this team,” he says of his work with the RAP. “Collecting data for two hours [in the morning], and the rest of the day I am walking trails, going along the edge of the river, and identifying birds by voice.” He calls this “fishing,” and he uses an iPod to do it.
Ascanio describes it this way: “There are many birds that won’t be singing at [a particular] time of year, so we bring recordings of their songs and trawl for birds that we think are in the area by playing back the song regularly, testing the waters looking for those songs. It’s a way to find out if the species is in the area even if they aren’t singing at dawn.”
Strapped to his arm, a classic white iPod (connected to speakers) projects the bird calls as Ascanio moves through three areas that exhibit different levels of human impact.
The iPod is compact, easy to use, and can hold thousands of calls – a great combination for field work. By playing back pre-recorded calls of species he hopes to identify, Ascanio is able to determine “what birds are there, what birds should be there, what’s missing, and sometimes, entirely new species of birds. It’s a great complement to the standard methods commonly used in field surveys.
“We found birds that had been reported only once or twice in the country,” he adds.
Unfortunately, human activities like mining and deforestation are causing many species – particularly in the tree-top canopy – to disappear. Says Ascanio, “we haven’t found any solid evidence of canopy species, which probably means that those species have been wiped out” in the areas of the forest being heavily mined.
Of the three main study sites, Ascanio says that birds are recolonizing a former miners’ trail where the trees have grown tall in the absence of heavy human activity, and that the upper Cuyuni river remains relatively untouched and a healthy habitat for birds.
The study site below the mouth of the river, however, has been severely impacted. “Mining is affecting birds, especially species with a rich and complex foraging dynamic.”
But Ascanio sees hope. “The mining trail tells us that if we don’t touch this forest, it may be back the way it was before the miners wiped out the trees. The good news is that … the capacity of bird species to recolonize these areas is high, and that’s not what we thought. It is difficult, but there is hope now.”