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An audio postcard to future generations: Volunteers document bird sounds of Acadia

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The mountains, lakes, deep woods and rugged coastlines of Maine's Acadia National Park are home to more than 300 species of birds. Volunteers are making recordings to document the avian soundscape, which is changing quickly. Murray Carpenter of Maine Public has the story.

MURRAY CARPENTER, BYLINE: At sunrise on a June morning, Laura Sebastianelli is starting off down a trail in Acadia National Park. She's wearing headphones and holding a big microphone that looks like a satellite dish about the diameter of a large pizza. Soon, she aims it in the direction of a warbler.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD SINGING)

LAURA SEBASTIANELLI: So we - actually we're hearing two common yellowthroats, and they're probably kind of counter-singing. So it's one male telling the other male, this is my territory, and the other one saying, this is my territory.

CARPENTER: For six years, Sebastianelli's been taping the bird songs of Acadia, and she and her team have gathered over 1,200 recordings. She's caught songs that are emblematic of summer in the North Woods, like the Swainson's thrush...

(SOUNDBITE OF SWAINSON'S THRUSH SINGING)

CARPENTER: ...And the white-throated sparrow...

(SOUNDBITE OF WHITE-THROATED SPARROW SINGING)

CARPENTER: ...And rarer sounds like the call of the American bittern, a wetlands bird in steep decline.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMERICAN BITTERN CALL)

CARPENTER: Climate change is adding urgency to the project as cold-loving species abandon Acadia and southern species arrive.

SETH BENZ: We already know an example would be boreal chickadees - used to breed in the park as late as the mid-'90s.

CARPENTER: Seth Benz of the Schoodic Institute is supporting the recording project.

BENZ: You can't find a breeding boreal chickadee in the park right now. Canada jays would come down and winter here, can't find them anymore.

CARPENTER: The recordings are being archived at the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where Jay McGowan says they're important specimens.

JAY MCGOWAN: How did this area sound before it was developed or before climate change, you know, drastically changed the habitat? So all of these snapshots in time of the acoustic soundscape are potentially really valuable in ways that we have not yet understood.

CARPENTER: Sebastianelli's recordings also help to supply Cornell's popular birding app Merlin, which helps identify bird species by their calls using a smartphone. Out on the trail, Sebastianelli runs into Theresa Cramer and Brian Chevalier, who say they've been using the app to identify bird songs on their hike and ask her to confirm their results.

THERESA CRAMER: Well, there was the common raven, the magnolia warbler and the black-throated green warbler. Does that sound right?

SEBASTIANELLI: All of them, yeah.

CRAMER: Yeah? Great.

BRIAN CHEVALIER: Awesome. Yeah.

CRAMER: Yeah.

CHEVALIER: We were definitely trying to listen for that scream of the common raven.

CARPENTER: A few minutes later, Sebastianelli stops to tape the calls of the raven still echoing out over a salt marsh.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAVEN CAWING)

CARPENTER: Back at the trailhead, Sebastianelli says it's like she's sending an audio postcard to future generations.

SEBASTIANELLI: Who knows what people are going to use this for? Who knows what education projects - is this going to be, you know, a point in time where like, oh, I wonder what Acadia National Park sounded like 50 years ago? Wow, how different. You know, who knows?

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CALLING)

CARPENTER: For NPR News, I'm Murray Carpenter.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Murray Carpenter