Bimonthly Membership Meeting
Wednesday, April 4, 2018
7:30 PM — 10:00 PM
Phipps Garden Center, Shady Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA


One hundred five individuals attended 3RBC's April meeting, which featured a presentation by top-ranked international birder and warbler expert Tom Stephenson, co-author (with Scott Whittle) of the acclaimed, The Warbler Guide, which enables birders to quickly identify any of the 56 species of warblers in the United States and Canada. A show of hands revealed that nearly everyone in attendance owned a copy! The Stephenson and Whittle system revolutionizes birdwatching, making warbler identification easier than ever before by making use of an entirely new system of vocalization analysis that helps distinguish songs and calls. His talk to 3RBC was entitled "The Warbler Guide: A New System For Identifying and Learning Vocalizations." The congenial author braved several technical problems as he guided the packed room through the elements of this groundbreaking system.

President Bob VanNewkirk called the meeting to order at 7:30 pm and welcomed 7 individuals as first time attendees.

He then reminded the attendees that former club member Aidan Place, was a participant in a birding competition, Champions of the Flyway, held annually in southern Israel. The event, which has quickly become one the world's premiere bird races, has two goals: first, and most obvious, the race pits contending birding teams against one another over a 24 hour period, with a goal of identifying the most species along the eastern Mediterranean migration highway. Perhaps more important, however, the competition also doubles as a fundraiser for Birdlife International's programs that seek to put a stop to illegal hunting and trapping of migratory birds in the region. This year the American Birding Association (ABA) sponsored a team for the first time, one made up of birders who all have connections with the ABA's Young Birder programs, including our very own, Aidan Place! The competing teams raised nearly $100,000 to help fund BirdLife International's programs, the most money raised to date. Aidan's team raised $5,500, including a $200 donation from 3RBC. While his team didn't win the competition, they did spot an impressive 147 species, not far off the winning team's 186 species. Congratulations, Aidan!

President VanNewkirk then turned the meeting over to Vice President Sheree Daugherty, who conducted the business portion of the meeting. She made the following announcements:

    • For those who wish to conserve paper (and trees!) and save the club the cost of printing and mailing, 3RBC's excellent newsletter, The Peregrine, will be available as an online-only option. Members will receive an email with a link when the newsletter is available. Those who might prefer this alternative should contact Tom Moeller at thosjmoel@gmail.com.

    • Members who wish to take advantage of a wonderful six day birding opportunity should consider participating in the Brooks Bird Club's Annual West Virginia Foray, scheduled to be held on June 3-10 in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. The Foray is held each June in a different region of West Virginia. While there will be classes and field work in birds, ferns, mosses, flowers, grasses, trees, geology, fungi, butterflies, herptiles and small mammals, the 2018 Foray's programs will emphasize birds: participants will have opportunities to join in the Breeding Surveys, Bird Population Studies, and early morning bird walks. At a cost of only $200, the Foray is an excellent value! For more information, visit brooksbirdclub.org.

    • Fern Hollow Nature Center's Susie Moffett announced that the center will host its fourth annual Big Day of Birding on April 28, running from 6:00am to 7:00pm. Teams who wish to compete must register in advance. For information, visit fhnc.org.

    The Peregrine editor Paul Hess previewed the upcoming issue of the club's newsletter, which will emphasize a theme - watching birds closely. Both Tom Moeller's "Observations" column and Bob VanNewkirk's President's Message emphasize this motif from different perspectives. In addition, other articles will support this thread.

    • Treasurer Tom Moeller gave the financial report, disclosing that the club has 291 members, with 9 still eligible for renewal. What's more, as an added incentive, members in good standing will receive an email with a link to the online version of The Peregrine at least a week before the paper copies are mailed, giving them an exclusive look at each new issue. Members should also be aware that the online version contains many full color photos taken by the club's excellent photographers.

    • Webmaster Tom Moeller explained that he continues to tweak the 3RBC website recently adjusting the font color on the website to increase readability, and correcting the "Join the Club" font color running in a menu at the top of each page. He also reminded the audience that, as of last November, the web site has carried the audio recording of Noah Strycker's October 4 presentation. Progressing farther in this direction, the site now holds a video clip of the Screech-Owl that had made its home in a tree on Shady Avenue, directly across from the Phipps Garden Center parking lot. Todd Ladner, who discovered the owl, made the amusing short video of the bird disappearing into its hole. In addition the club Facebook page contains many informative links, including eagle nest sites in the Pittsburgh area.

    • Steve Thomas, the club's Outings Coordinator, reported that the club has many spring outings scheduled. Outings coming in April and May include: Saturday, April 7, Yellow Creek State Park; Sunday, April 8, Glade Run Lake Park; Wednesday, April 11, Woodcock Walk; Saturday, April 21, Raccoon Creek State Park (This is a combination bird, wildflower walk and picnic with the Brooks Bird Club. For more information, please visit brooksbirdclub.org); and Saturday, May 19, Ralph K. Bell Memorial Bird Walk. Many more outings are scheduled for May and June in Frick Park, Schenley Park, Harrison Hills Park, Presque Isle, Deer Lakes Park, Sewickley Heights Park and others. As always, check the 3RBC website Outings page for details.

    • Mike Fialkovich presented the recent bird sightings report for Allegheny County. Since his last report, new bird sightings highlights include: Louisiana Waterthrush in Sewickley Heights Park; Greater Yellowlegs and Wilson's Snipe At Imperial; a pair of Peregrine Falcons at the Elizabeth Bridge and another pair at the Tarentum Bridge; a leucistic Song Sparrow at Wood's Run; Ross's Goose at Findlay Township; Tundra Swans at Dashields Dam; Northern Shoveler at Imperial, Duck Hollow and Six Mile Island on the Allegheny River; Gadwall at Dashields Dam; Long-tailed Duck on the South Side; White-winged Scoters at Blawnox and Wood's Run; Red-necked Grebe on the Allegheny River at Fox Chapel and Wood's Run; Lesser Black-backed Gull at the Highland Park Bridge; Bonaparte's Gull at Dashields Dam; a light-morphed Rough-legged Hawk at Findlay Township and another at Imperial; Fish Crow at Duck Hollow; Pine Siskin at Franklin Park and Sewickley Heights Park; and Rusty Blackbirds at Pine Township. To round out the sightings, attendees reported Chipping Sparrows, Tree Swallows, Northern Rough-winged Swallows and a few Barn Swallows in various locations throughout the county.


Vice President Daugherty announced June 6, 2018, as the club's next meeting date. Club member Kathy Miller will present a program outlining her recent trip to exciting and exotic Papua New Guinea, where she spent August 2017 touring and birding with her sister and frequent birding companion, Linda Arthur.

Concluding the business portion of the meeting, Vice President Daugherty then introduced the evening's speaker, Tom Stephenson. She informed the audience that the club's highly accomplished guest began birding when he was young under the tutelage of Dr. Arthur Allen of Cornell University. His articles and photographs are in museums and many publications including Birding, Bird Watcher's Digest, Handbook of the Birds of the World, Handbook of the Mammals of the World, Birds of Madagascar, and Guide to the Birds of South East Brazil.

Mr. Stephenson has lectured and guided many groups across the US as well as Asia, where he trained guides for the government of Bhutan. He has donated numerous recordings of Eastern Himalayan rarities and other Asian species to Cornell's Macaulay Library of Natural sounds.

In addition to being a truly world-class birder, Tom is also a highly accomplished, professional musician and played concerts and did studio work for many years, working with several Grammy and Academy Award winners as well as performing with members of the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra. His clients have included the Grateful Dead, Phil Collins and the FBI. He joined Roland Corporation - a leading manufacturer of electronic musical instruments, electronic equipment and software - in 1991, where he managed the audio recorder division, and retired recently as Director of Technology.

His latest book, The Warbler Guide, published by Princeton University Press, recently won the National Outdoor Book Award. The companion Warbler Guide App, features 3D rotating models and won the 2015 Design Award for the Association of American University Presses' Book, Jacket, and Journal Show. His soon-to-be-released app, BirdGenie, is a 'Shazam' for birdsongs that helps bird enthusiasts identify more than 150 common vocalizations in the eastern and western US by recording them on a smart phone. He is also working on a new book and app project for Princeton University Press on identifying and learning all North American bird songs.

His talk to 3RBC focused on birdsong sonograms - graphs representing sounds, showing the distribution of energy at different frequencies. These graphic images of songs provide important clues on how to differentiate similar-sounding species and help us understand and learn warbler vocalizations by showing subtle but important variations in short calls or by making it easier to recognize differences in the larger patterns of complex songs. Once these differences are discerned in sonograms, they become much easier to hear in the field. In short, becoming familiar with sonograms - coupled with field work - helps birders learn to how to accurately distinguish the differences between similar sounding vocalizations and trains their ears to hear the vocalizations more clearly.

One of the more revolutionary aspects of this system is the terminology that the authors have developed to help talk about the various elements of a birdsong's structure. Song structure, says Stephenson, can be described by using three simple terms: Elements, Phrases, and Sections.

Every separate sound you hear while listening to a song is an Element - an Element can be a single long note, a short note, or even a long buzz. Elements are the building blocks of songs: if it sounds like one smoothly continuous sound to our ears, it's an Element. Elements have qualities, and can be broadly categorized as Clear, Buzzy, or Complex.

Phrases call out patterns of single Elements or groups of Elements. "Phrase" indicates a single Element or a group of two, three or more different Elements that are repeated two or more times without change.

Sections are simply groups of similar Phrases and are very important structures to recognize when listening, since how a song's Sections are organized, and how many there are, is important to identifying many warbler songs.

Once pitch, rhythm, and volume, are considered, a system emerges that allows accurate description and categorization of any birdsong.

Of course, once categorized, the birder's task then becomes memorization, and Tom also provided several tips to accomplish this important step. He recommended the following: load recordings of target songs into iTunes, broken into small groups or playlists of 6-10 songs each; play the songs one at a time and find a visual image that naturally occurs to you when hearing each song; find a way to associate that image with the name of the bird; review the songs and images after a break of a couple of minutes; then test yourself within 10 minutes by playing back the songs in random order, without listening to or reading the song names; finally, repeat the process.

Mastering the system will, of course, require time and practice, but there is no denying that The Warbler Guide puts forth a method and provides tools and a vocabulary that makes communicating the intricacies of birdsong much more straightforward for not only bird professionals and scientists, like Tom Stephenson, but for the rest of us as well!

Following the presentations, President VanNewkirk adjourned the meeting.

— prepared by Frank Moone on 4-18-2018

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Mission of 3RBC

To gather in friendship, to enjoy the wonders of nature and to share our passion for birds!

© Photo Credits:
Sherron Lynch, Brian Shema, Chuck Tague