Greg Budney is curator at Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds (Cornell University). Among birders, this is authentic fame, as good as it gets. He’s been working at the library since 1980. Budney’s job is like no other, flying to Hawaii to record the last two àlala (Hawaiian crow), living in the wild. The landowner gave him one day to work. And then the recording expedition to South America and so on, 28 years of it.
Budney, 51, is married and has one young son. He stands under six feet, has a wrestler’s build, clean-shaven, and blond hair. I ask about his gear.
“Mostly digital gear, these days,” Budney says. “It’s lighter. Longer run times. You’re not constrained by the length of the media. You can get a card that holds eight hours. There’s no more running out of tape. Microphones are pretty much the same, although some techniques have changed. New types of stereo.”
I ask, “How about range? Can you record further away from the bird?”
Budney says, “The same distance. The trick is knowing how to operate your equipment. And it depends on what you’re trying to record, how loud the sound is, and what the environment is like. One of the reasons we go to a place like this [Yuba Pass, Sierra County] is that it’s relatively quiet. Not all that quiet, but relatively quiet. If you stand outside with a pair of headphones on and listen through a microphone, you’re going to hear noise, everywhere.”
“I’ve noticed, on your website [bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna], there are birds pictured with no sounds attached.”
“Some of the sounds we’re after on North American birds aren’t sounds one commonly hears,” Budney says. “You might hear it once every few years. If you’re well prepared and conditions are right, you’ll stand a better chance of getting it.”
Make your luck. “Say, you figure this bird is typically found in Eastern Manitoba in the spring, so you go there. Once you’re in place, how do you determine how long you’ll wait for the sound you want?”
Budney laughs. “Usually the budget determines how long I’m going to wait. Right now, we have a team up in the Canadian Arctic working on a species that is poorly represented. You can imagine not that many people go to the Arctic to record.”
“You need bird sounds of every male, female, juvenile, mating, calling, alarm…”
“Right,” Budney says. “Adult, juvenile contact calls. There are some vocalizations given by adults, but you don’t hear them often. Some species aren’t that numerous. Last year, we made the first recordings for the archive of the gray-headed chickadee. It’s a species that’s also found in Siberia. I believe there is one other recording by a Canadian recordist. Now, we have some excellent stereophonic gray-headed chickadee. That was an endeavor. There are only one or two good locations in Alaska to record this.”
I want his job. “How many places in the world do what you do?”
“There are not many places devoted to recording and archiving bird sounds. Of our scale, there is really only one other archive in the world. We have 175,000 individual specimens, individual birds, or flocks of birds. And the closest collection, I believe, is the British Library’s wildlife section.”
“About 150,000 recordings.”
“It must get lonely when you want to stop by the neighborhood pub and talk shop?”
“That’s one of the great things about doing a course like this. [Once a year Budney teaches a natural-sound recording course in Sierra County, California. People fly in from all over the world.] We’ve run this course for 19 years. The camaraderie is one of the outstanding things. We get people up at five in the morning, we’re putting equipment in the vehicle, and, ten after five, every day, we’re driving off.”
Budney usually has 20 students in his course. There is a “Ugandan fellow, a British fellow working on rock and tree hyraxes, which are a relative of the elephant, very interesting small mammals that have great vocalizations. The Israeli institutes have sent us a dozen or so. New Zealand has sent five students.”
Time to go. “What do you do for fun?”
“Bird reporting.” We laugh. “One of the most exciting things about doing this is the intimate experiences you have with wildlife. You engage in a very intimate way, with a particular individual and their behavior. You really delve into that animal’s life. The nighthawk comes booming in. You see it interact with another bird. You see it land on a tree. You’re trying to get that recording and it’s being harassed by a Steller’s jay, and it just goes on and on and on. That’s what makes this so much fun. You have to use great field craft. You have to be stealthy."