Recordist of Note: Wil Hershberger

By Kathi Borgmann

In 1995 Wil Hershberger, a molecular biologist by training and an avid birder, found himself in northern California. That’s where Hershberger was bitten, by the recording bug that is.

Hershberger says he was always into birds. First, it was a brilliant Baltimore Oriole in his backyard that made him take notice of birds when he was 10. Around that time, his mother gave him a cassette recorder for Christmas. That spring he made his very first recording of a group of White-throated Sparrows. Unknown to the young Hershberger at the time, recording would soon become a way of life for him.

Hershberger graduated from Shephard University in West Virginia and went straight to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where he spent 38 years as a lab technician. But his interest in birds kept tugging at him, so he decided to study birds on the side. In the late 1980s that led him to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources where he studied the ecology of Loggerhead Shrikes, whose population was declining. Hershberger noticed that areas that seemed like prime habitat for the shrikes were devoid of shrikes. In an effort to more thoroughly search for shrikes they decided to try playing shrike calls and songs to elicit a response from birds that were out of sight. Hershberger borrowed some recording gear and started recording shrikes in other areas for the playback experiment.

The Loggerhead Shrike project got him thinking about recording birds and in 1994 Hershberger fortuitously found an article about the Library of Natural Sounds’ (now the Macaulay Library) sound recording workshop in California. Intrigued, Hershberger signed up. “The addiction began right then and there,” says Hershberger.

And an addict for recording is a good description for Hershberger. Hershberger records five days a week on average, going out every day that isn’t too windy or rainy. He typically comes home with 20-50 cuts every day, of which several of them are usually what Hershberger calls “keepers.”

With a recording schedule like that, I needed to know what motivates him. Hershberger says, “there is really nothing like hearing a bird singing or giving calls when you are listening through headphones, particularly if you are using a parabolic reflector. As Don Kroodsma says, it’s as if the bird was sitting on your shoulder and singing right into your ear.” Hershberger also loves what he calls the organic nature of sound recording. “You are trying to blend into the surroundings and be as inconspicuous as possible, so the bird continues to behave in a normal fashion,” says Hershberger. Sound recording brings you closer to the birds in a way photography can’t, explains Hershberger. But it’s not just being in the field that Hershberger enjoys, he also likes to bring the sounds home to see the spectrograms. “It’s just fabulous to see what the birds are doing, things that we can’t hear because they happen so quickly. It’s fascinating stuff,” says Hershberger, “there is just so much to learn.”

Late one evening in April, Hershberger heard a female Brown Thrasher calling, but it was a sound he’d not heard before. He started recording and as the evening light started to fade so did the frequency of the thrasher’s calls until she tucked her head and went to sleep. “It was pretty neat, she was right there,” says Hershberger in his voice announcement. Take a listen to the entire recording and listen to Hershberger describe the event—it’s absolutely wonderful and the recording makes you feel like you are right there!

Brown Thrasher Toxostoma rufum

  • Maryland, Frederick, United States

Hershberger says “someone once said to me that you only get so many calm mornings out in the field, so it’s best to get out as often as you can and stay out there, even if it appears that nothing is happening, eventually something will happen and you’ll get a really good recording, it might be a common bird, but it’s best just to be out there.”

And just being out there certainly has paid off for Hershberger. One late March day back in 1999 he recorded an unknown vocalization of an Eastern Phoebe. Excited about his new recording, he brought it back to the Macaulay Library. The archivists and Greg Budney, then the director of the Macaulay Library, listened intently while Hershberger described the event. “At one point,” Hershberger said, “the male started flying around in a circle over the path with a goldfinch-like undulating flight pattern. He made the circuit twice then landed back on the perch that he started from all the while giving a rather un-phoebe like series of calls.” Hershberger documented the flight display song of an Eastern Phoebe, a sound previously not well documented. Thanks to Hershberger we now have the Eastern Phoebe flight display song preserved forever in the archive.

Eastern Phoebe Sayornis phoebe

  • Maryland, Frederick, United States

Hershberger shared many recording adventures with me during our interview; the sheer joy of recording and passion for learning shone through every minute. Even in daily walks around his home, Hershberger can always find something interesting to record. He is currently working on a project to learn more about how birds sing. “That project,” says Hershberger, “has been very rewarding and a great deal of fun even though it has required long hours in the field recording the birds. There is nothing like getting to know individual birds and those individuals’ songs. I have recorded well over 1,000 songs from each of several male Vesper Sparrows.”

I asked Hershberger if he had any advice for a beginner. “For those of you just starting out,” Hershberger says, “don’t fall into the trap of buying really inexpensive gear first. Talk to people that are sound recordists and find out what they recommend. Try to get the best you can afford. Start with good gear because it will last longer in the field and you will get better results.”

Hershberger records with a Sound Devices 702 digital recorder and a Sennheiser MKH 8020 microphone with a 30-inch Roché parabolic reflector. For years he also used a Sennheiser ME 62 with a parabola or a Sennheiser ME 66 or ME 67 shotgun microphone, which he says are also good microphones.

Hershberger has archived more than 3,000 recordings in the Macaulay Library. Many of his recordings are featured in Merlin Bird ID, on All About Birds, and eBird’s Explore Species pages. If you listen to bird songs of Eastern North America in Merlin or on the Explore Species pages, you will undoubtedly hear some of Hershberger’s recordings, because they are often the very best we have for those species. He also has over 300 recordings in the Cornell Guide to Bird Sounds – Master Set for North America, which features the best recordings of birds in North America. But Hershberger’s recordings are not just of birds. He also records insects and published a book entitled “The Songs of Insects.” His “side project” certainly turned into a phenomenal collection of sounds, available for everyone to hear. Thank you, Wil Hershberger, for sharing your passion and recordings with the world!