Recordist of Note: Valerie Heemstra

By Macaulay Library Team
Valerie Heemstra photo by Sean Murphy

Valerie Heemstra has been watching birds for most of her life and although medicine won out on the career front, Valerie continues to pursue her love of birds. In fact, according to her eBird profile, Valerie retired so she could spend more time birding. Valerie has been busy birding, she has 1,143 recordings and 6,479 photos and counting in the archive.

We recently sat down with Valerie for a little Q&A to learn more about her passion for recording bird sounds.

Macaulay Library: How did you get interested in watching birds?

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos

  • New York, Orange, United States

Valerie: I’ve always been interested in birds, even before I started talking, I think. Their sounds, their ability to fly, their nests and eggs, their young—it was all fascinating to me. By the time I was seven years old, it had become obvious to my family, too, because that Christmas I received presents that related to birds including books about birds, an Yma Sumac phonograph record (she could sing like a bird), and my first binoculars. When I was 8, I heard a bird’s song that woke me from my sleep that I didn’t recognize, so I headed outside to find out what it was (we lived in St. Petersburg, FL then, and it was a Yellow-throated Warbler, my first!). When I was 9, I found a dead woodpecker in the alley behind our house, and with no one home except me, I brought it into the bathroom and dissected its legs to find out why when it bent its legs, the feet gripped tighter (the woodpecker must have been pretty rotten because the smell was so bad that I learned to breathe through my mouth during that exercise!)  When I was a senior in high school, it was difficult to choose between becoming an ornithologist or going into medicine; I remember writing a poem about my dilemma.  I don’t remember the whole poem now, but there was a line in it about leaving a mockingbird “whose silver notes remained hanging in thin air” to “rush off to ambulance screams.”

Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos

  • New York, Westchester, United States

Macaulay Library: How long have you been recording?

Valerie: I was invited to attend the audio workshop at Cornell in June 2017, which I did. That is where I started to learn, but it was a rocky beginning. I had just returned from a trip to Vienna, Austria, and on the flight home my right ear eustachian tube became totally blocked and remained that way for four months. I not only had trouble hearing the birds, but I also had trouble hearing humans. I was confused by the computer programs, and I was frustrated more than I have ever been in my entire life! The staff were kind and they were certainly knowledgeable, but they truly didn’t have time to deal with someone who couldn’t hear. There was a whole class to teach! I hated to ask for extra attention for fear that they would never again accept an old lady into the program. On one of the last days, Martha Fischer took me under her wing and gave me some help that made a big difference. I really wanted to learn to record, so I made up my mind to buy the equipment and begin to use it at home. My purchase from Stith arrived around December 2017 and a friend helped me put the pieces together. I began to record during the winter months, but there wasn’t much to record with most of the birds away for the season. I practiced anyway, and by March 2018, I made about 600 recordings and finally had one I was willing to submit with my eBird checklist.

Macaulay Library: What motivates you to record birds?

Valerie: Even before the shocking statistics came out in Science a few months ago, I recognized that bird numbers were declining and it worried me. I believe that humans will be more inclined to protect birds, their habitats, their food (insects), and their environment (with respect to light and sound pollution, glass windows, cats, etc.) if birds are better understood. There is a saying (I am not sure who said it), that you only protect that which you love. Then it follows that we, who love birds, should help other humans understand and love birds if we want birds to be protected.

I am also interested in bird behavior. My goal is to determine what birds are actually communicating with their songs and calls. I am also trying to correlate birds’ behavior with their songs/calls, especially in pairs, flocks, or among different species. Does communication via songs or calls occur within one species or between species as well? We have a lot to learn.

Macaulay Library: Tell us about one of your most memorable recording events.

Valerie: One of my favorite or most memorable recording events happened when I met a Virginia Rail family at Shawangunk Grasslands (Ulster County) on July 9, 2019. As I stood quietly on the trail by the pond I could hear the family approaching in the vegetation. The first one in the group, an adult, came within a few inches of my boot before it realized there was a human present. Then it squawked and rushed across the trail to cattails and marsh on the other side. It was followed by two chicks and a second adult and a third chick. Finally, a fourth chick crossed the trail quite a long way from the rest of the family.

Virginia Rail Rallus limicola

  • New York, Ulster, United States

Macaulay Library: Do you have any recording tips to share for someone just getting started?

Valerie: Most bird recorders use headphones in the field, but I found them too cumbersome. I leave my headphones at home and rely on the strength of the signal on the recorder itself to know how accurately I am aiming at the bird. When I started recording, I didn’t want to give up photography; my camera has a 70-300 mm lens, so it isn’t very light or small either, so I needed to figure out how to carry all the gear. For a while, I didn’t carry binoculars, but then I began to miss them. So now I carry all three, the recorder and camera on separate harnesses, and the binoculars around my neck. Since I need two hands to use the binocs and the camera, I have attached a string to the recorder which I can loop around the knobs on the parabola when I am not using the parabola. It dangles but allows me to take a picture. I can’t walk far with the parabola dangling, though, because the cord will kink, and kinking will damage the wires inside the cord. Other tips: take vacations where it is quiet. Westchester County is noisy, full of jets, trains, cars, trucks with back-up signals, leaf blowers, dogs, and lots of runners who talk loudly. No matter how you position yourself, a lot of these noises are recorded, along with the wren songs. And lastly, don’t close the cord in the car door!

Macaulay Library: Tell us about your next recording adventure.

Valerie: My next recording adventure starts tomorrow. Every day presents new opportunities for recording. People often ask is there a species I want to find/record. Yes, it is the one with wings and feathers. The more I record, the more variety I find in the bird voices. It is endlessly fascinating.


Thank you, Valerie, for sharing your recordings with the Macaulay Library and the world! Happy birding!