Recordings birds with a parabolic mic

Recordings birds with a parabolic mic

jeff with a wildtronics parabolic microphone in forest
Jeff with a Wildtronics Pro Mono Parabolic Microphone at Government Canyon

My first parabolic microphone recently arrived in the mail. I took it for a spin the past few weekends to see how it felt to use and how it sounded compared to my shotgun microphone setup.

Five years of recording birds for funsies

In 2019, I began recording bird songs using my phone. I credit the Merlin App for making it effortless to identify and save new bird recordings with Sound ID. It wasn’t long before I found myself leaving my camera at home and going out to exclusively record new birds. That wasn’t to say I didn’t try to do both at the same time.

Wildtronics Pro Mono Parabolic Microphone with mounted Zoom F3 and banana for scale.

My parabolic microphone setup

Initial research of the parabolic microphone market showed me that only a few options are available for the average hobbyist: Wildtronics, Telinga, and Dodotronic. There are other options out there but I found the most discourse about these brands.

A Wildtronics Pro Mono Parabolic Microphone was the best option for me because it included a microphone and is American-based.

For the recorder, I connected a Zoom F3 because it’s tiny and can be mounted directly to the microphone (with the mini accessory bar). The F3’s best feature is its simplicity. There is no need to adjust the recorder’s volume (gain). Just start recording.

Pointing the parabola

Aiming the Wildtronics parabolic at a Northern Cardinal I spotted in Government Canyon

A parabolic mic is much more directional than a shotgun or omnidirectional microphone. I was ready to bring over-the-ear headphones to help with my aim but they’re annoying to take on and off, so I brought cheap tiny earbuds instead.

It was less difficult to aim the parabola than I imagined. When I could see the bird, it was easy to simply point the mic at it while looking through the transparent dish. When the bird wasn’t visible, it was a guessing game to aim so the earbuds came in handy.

It felt magical at the moment the mic hit the perfect direction. The bird’s pretty song came into crystal clear focus, louder, and more vibrant than I’ve ever experienced.

Hidden ambient noises 🪰

The parabolic microphone was excellent at ambient sounds but it picks up the tiniest sounds between or behind the bird and you.

Things like insects buzzing in front of the dish, other birds in front or behind the subject, and echoes of distant passersby all become factors to avoid.

My favorite parabolic bird recordings so far

The only editing done to these recordings is normalizing to -3dB and a few have a gentle high-pass filter (250Hz frequency and 6dB roll-off).

Visualizations were created with Merlin by importing the final recordings and exporting the spectrogram. Follow any of the Macaulay Library links to hear and watch the live spectrogram as the bird sings.

Painted Bunting

Painted Buntings males are a chromatic spectacle. This one was perched 30m away on the top of a tree.

Parabolic microphone recording of a Painted Bunting

Red-eyed Vireo

The Red-eyed Vireo’s song is a series of quick whistles punctuated by short pauses. It loves to see from high in the tree canopy where it can remain hidden.

The Red-eyed Vireo sings in this chill manner for long durations. It never forgets to take a breath! The parabolic mic was helpful since this bird likes to keep its distance.

Indigo Bunting

The Indigo Bunting’s complex warbling song and spectrogram share similarities with the Painted Bunting. If you compare them, the Indigo’s song sounds slightly different and seems to be longer in duration.

The spectrogram produced from this parabolic mic recording of an Indigo Bunting shows a longer but similar song to the Painted Bunting.

Golden-cheeked Warbler

The Golden-cheeked Warbler is a beautiful, endangered bird that breeds exclusively in mixed juniper-oak woodland in central Texas. Conveniently, I live in central Texas and can enjoy seeing this bird at Government Canyon.

This bird has two typical songs, A and B. The A song is more common to hear during the day.

Golden-cheeked Warblers have two main songs, A and B. This is the “A song.”

Olive Sparrow

A fellow birder compared the song of the Olive Sparrow to the sound of a ball landing on the ground.

The Olive Sparrow’s song begins as a series of downslurs that accelerate into a trill.

Yellow-breasted Chat

This was my favorite bird to listen to and record. Similar to a Northern Mockingbird, the Yellow-breasted Chat seems to randomly sing from its repertoire of sounds.

I analyzed the Chat’s spectrogram and identified these five unique sounds. See if you can identify them without looking at the spectrogram. A White-eyed Vireo’s song can be heard throughout the clip to try to throw you off. 😉

Don’t be fooled by the warbling of the White-eyed Vireo distracting you in this clip.

A comparison of shotgun and parabolic mic bird recordings

Hear the quality difference between a parabolic and shotgun microphone by listening to these combined bird recordings.

This is a non-scientific comparison of my bird recordings made with a parabolic mic and a shotgun mic (Sennheiser ME66/67). Disclaimer, these are simply comparisons between my favorite recordings of the same species taken with both microphones during separate occasions.

*A beep separates the parabolic and shotgun microphone in the clips below* 🤖

Painted Bunting comparison

Look below at how much noisier the shotgun mic’s spectrogram is compared to the parabola. After normalizing both clips to -3dB, the shotgun recording has much more ambient noise.

The Painted Bunting’s warbling song comes through loud and clear using the parabola.

Listen to a combined clip below of the parabolic recording next to the shotgun mic recording.

Parabolic microphone recording of a Painted Bunting
Shotgun microphone recording of a Painted Bunting

Red-eyed Vireo comparison

This is a tricky bird to record. The Red-eyed Vireo spends most of its time singing in the forest canopy. I’ve honestly never gotten a good view of this bird, basically only heard it.

Parabolic microphone recording of a Red-eyed Vireo
Shotgun microphone recording of a Red-eyed Vireo

Northern Cardinal

Cardinals sound like spaceship lasers. That’s all. This is the most comparable recording between the two microphones. I think if the distance and conditions were better, the parabolic recording would be better. There is an “insect band” visible in the spectrogram.

parabolic mic spectrogram recording of northern cardinal in texas
Parabolic microphone recording of a Northern Cardinal
shotgun mic spectrogram recording of northern cardinal in texas
Shotgun microphone recording of a Northern Cardinal

A new era for my bird recording

I dreamed of a parabolic microphone for many years and felt a need to show myself continued interest in bird recording before investing in one. Parabolas aren’t cheap and at the time of writing, the setup described in this post runs ~$1250. But the quality and clarity is worth it.

The excitement I feel to go out and record birds is greater than ever. 🪶

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