Recordist of note: Linda Macaulay

By Kathi Borgmann
Linda Macaulay

Linda Macaulay dedicates much, if not all, of her spare time to recording birds and building the sound library that now bears her name. Linda has archived more than 6,000 audio recordings of 2,831 species. She has also added more than 650 recordings that were the very first recordings of a species in the archive. And to this day, Linda’s name appears as the sole recordist for several species in the archive. Linda’s dedication and commitment to building a sound library and her contributions to ornithology earned her the Arthur A. Allen award in 2010 for her outstanding service to ornithology. Linda is also a passionate supporter of the Lab and serves as the Chair of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Administrative Board.

In December I had a chance to sit down with Linda to chat about how she got started as a recordist and about her sound recording adventures in 53 countries.

When Linda was a child, she spent hours drawing birds, but she says, “I never realized that anyone could actually go birdwatching!” Linda’s first birdwatching experience wasn’t until college when a professor took the class to a wildlife refuge. Linda walked out into that wildlife refuge, binoculars in hand, and immediately discovered the joys of watching birds. As Linda tells it, she eagerly ran home and told her husband Bill all about birdwatching. Bill, on the other hand, wasn’t so sure about this whole birdwatching thing. Linda, undeterred, borrowed some binoculars and took Bill birding the very next weekend and from then on Linda says, “we just never stopped.”

Linda now travels the world recorder in hand and Bill by her side, but Linda didn’t take up recording until the 1980s after she went on a birdwatching trip in Kenya. It was on this trip that Bill and Linda met Greg Budney, a former curator at the Macaulay Library. Greg’s passion for recording inspired Linda and he encouraged her to start recording on her own. Following the trip, Linda purchased her own equipment, took the sound recording workshop, and she was off collecting sounds from birds around the world. Linda says, the staff at the Lab motivated and enabled me. “Everybody at the Lab is committed to this work, says Linda, I’m just a piece of it.”

Linda fondly shared story after story from the field; so many adventures that she says, “if I read my mother my great adventure list, well that would not be good, things got a little dicey occasionally.”

No matter what the situation, Linda had her gear at the ready, even if it was a little risky. Linda grabbed a great recording of a male and female common hippopotamus in Namibia aggressively defending his territory. “I thought I was going to get divorced over that one because my husband thought I was going to get eaten by it.”

Common Hippopotamus Hippopotamus amphibius

  • Okavango, Namibia

Martha Fischer, an archivist at the Macaulay Library who has archived thousands of Linda’s recordings, says “Linda is one of the few people who would go to hard to reach places like Oman, I mean, nobody goes to Oman.” Linda not only went to Oman, she returned with 27 recordings—nearly half of the recordings in the archive from Oman.

On Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia, Linda recorded a bird sound that the local guide didn’t recognize and when they played the call, a rare Whitehead’s Trogon popped out of the forest and into view. “It’s really exciting when you have a bird that you studied, and the field guide says voice unknown and you get a recording. This trogon didn’t sound anything like a trogon.” Linda’s recording helped them find four more trogons on the mountain that day.

Whitehead's Trogon

Whitehead's Trogon Harpactes whiteheadi

  • Sabah, Malaysia

Whitehead's Trogon Harpactes whiteheadi

  • Sabah, Malaysia

Linda’s favorite recording experience happened in Africa when she recorded the prized, multi-colored African Pitta. A pitta like no other, this bird was a mystery bird to many with only a handful of sightings across Africa. Linda was fortunate to be there in the breeding season and captured their courtship display on tape. “The male gets inside the bush, perches on a horizontal branch and then they jump off of the branch and throw out their wings and tail with a huge flash of blue and red and then land back on the branch while calling.” Linda recorded the call of the African Pitta and paid attention to the habitat where she found them. Later, to her surprise, she recorded the African Pitta again in the same habitat, but this time more than 500 miles away, a significant range expansion.

African Pitta Pitta angolensis

  • Malawi

I could have listened to Linda gush about tales from the field all day long, from the 20-minute recording of the Superb Lyrebird, to the recording of the Egyptian Plover, to the happenstance recording of a flycatcher, to the recording of a Calliope Hummingbird in the backyard of a complete stranger with a caged mountain lion.

When asked what it feels like to record, Linda says, “it’s beautiful to be out in nature. The sounds are so varied, and the stories are so rich. Listening to the dawn chorus in South America is just amazing because there is so much going on and if you stop and try and let your brain hear all of the different sounds, it’s just beautiful.”

The challenge of recording birds, Linda says “is that you have to learn to listen. People think that they can’t learn bird song, but as humans we are pretty good at processing sounds.” You always know when it’s your mother on the phone, even without caller ID, so learning who’s who from sound is possible. The only problem with listening, Linda says, is that she hears background sounds everywhere.

Linda describes herself as very organized. She knows what species to expect on her outings, what species the archive needs, and what they sound like, before ever leaving her house. Being organized ahead of time, Linda says, is the key to being a successful recordist. Linda also adds, “don’t try to make a perfect recording or you will never record anything. You have to go for a good recording and then try to get a better one.”

Linda also stresses the importance of metadata and carrying extra batteries. “In a light, sing-songy voice that is, when she remembered to turn the gain down,” says Martha Fischer with a laugh, “Linda included lots of useful information with her recordings.” “Vocalizations of Rufous-breasted Leaftosser. A pair came in in response to playback; there’s sort of like a chip note and then there is a trill. Birds were very well seen. When they do the trill, the bird sitting upon a branch; one came in I don’t know maybe 10 feet off the ground on a horizontal branch, the other one was quite close to the ground. The one on the branch when it was giving the trill was…well, the whole body shakes, the tail, the whole body, just sort of violently shakes. Very well seen at 10 in the morning.”

Rufous-breasted Leaftosser Sclerurus scansor

  • Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

“One thing about recording is that it takes you places you might not get otherwise, and you see the world in a different way. You are not simply a tourist going to see the Eiffel Tower when you are a recordist you see so much more and learn so much more about the places you go.” The other wonderful thing about recording and birds, Linda says is that “they transcend boundaries.”

For her next adventure, Linda hopes to head to the Seychelles and Réunion Island off the coast of Madagascar, because on islands “there is always something interesting.”

Thank you, Linda Macaulay, for your contributions to the archive and for your dedication and passion for the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology!