Recordist of Note: Peter Boesman

By Kathi Borgmann

Peter Boesman has recorded nearly half of the world’s birds—amassing one of the largest personal collections of bird vocalizations in the world. If you have ever looked for bird calls or songs from the Americas, Europe, Africa, or Asia no doubt you have come across recordings by Peter Boesman. His MP3 sound collections are the go-to source for learning bird songs and calls outside of North America.

I routinely turned to Boesman’s recordings when I was traveling throughout the Americas. His name was on nearly every recording I studied, but I knew very little about this legendary recordist. Who was Peter Boesman? And how was he able to capture the vocalizations of so many species?

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Peter Boesman and learn a little more about his life and his passion of recording birds. When I dialed Boesman’s number I have to admit that I was a little nervous to be talking to such a legend in the field. But Boesman’s humble and gentle demeanor quickly put me at ease. I could have listened to stories of recording adventures and descriptions of bird vocalizations for hours.

Boesman says his interest in nature started at a young age. His third-grade teacher encouraged him to pay attention to the birds, insects, and mammals in nature, and Boesman says he always remembers that encouragement.

A few years later Boesman joined a youth nature club where his passion for nature and adventure really blossomed. Soon weekend club excursions turned into biking adventures and when he had explored all he could by bike, he hopped on a train to find even more birds. Adventures by train and bike soon turned to flying in search of new species.

When young Boesman wasn’t exploring the Belgian countryside, he was indoors playing the piano, a skill that later turned into a master’s degree in music. His ear for musical notes made him a natural when it came to learning bird song and even fueled his recording of birds. Boesman repurposed his recorder meant to record him playing the piano to record bird sounds when he was 12.

But Boesman didn’t really get started recording bird vocalizations until 1988 when he took a trip to Venezuela. He’d heard rumors that people were playing back vocalizations to lure difficult-to-see species out of dense tropical tangles and he thought he would give it a try. He recorded 88 species and spotted many difficult to see birds using his recordings. Unfortunately, all 88 of those recordings were lost.

Venezuelan Wood-Quail

Venezuelan Wood-Quail Odontophorus columbianus

  • Aragua, Venezuela

Luckily Boesman was able to return to Venezuela in 1990 as a resident and this time all of his recordings were safely archived. Later Boesman published a CD ROM called The Birds of Venezuela with 700 photographs and nearly 1300 audio recordings.

Tepui Antpitta Myrmothera simplex

  • Bolívar, Venezuela

Since those early years recording in Venezuela, Boesman has been recording nonstop for 30 years and doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. “I’ve recorded half of the world’s birds, so I have another half to record,” says Boesman.

Some of Boesman’s best birding memories are from lodges in the Amazon or remote locations in Africa where he could step outside the lodge and spend the whole day birding, and not see a single person except the owners of the lodge. Boesman also appreciates grabbing a recording of a vocalization that hasn’t been recorded very often like this Vermiculated Fishing-Owl he recorded in Zambia in the middle of the night right from his tent.

Vermiculated Fishing-Owl Scotopelia bouvieri

  • North-Western, Zambia

“Recording,” Boesman says, “is a continuous learning process.” When Boesman started recording, he was primarily interested in learning bird songs and using his recordings to get a glimpse of the bird. As time went on, Boesman says his motivations changed and his focus turned to documenting everything he could and selling his recordings as MP3s, quite a pioneering activity in those days. Back then Boesman says, “I was motivated to share my knowledge with other birders.”

Gradually Boesman says he became more interested in the scientific use of his recordings to help researchers better understand speciation and species limits. Boesman is the author on more than 20 scientific publications (he also holds a MSc degree in Engineering Sciences). Boesman recently used his recordings to suggest that there are two different species of Dusky Long-tailed Cuckoo and Yellow-spotted Barbet in Africa. The western population of Dusky Long-tailed Cuckoo (Whistling) occurs from Sierra Leone east to western Cameroon and sings a longer whistled song at a lower frequency compared to the eastern population (Eastern Dusky Long-tailed Cuckoo) that occurs from eastern Cameroon to Uganda. Similarly, the Yellow-spotted Barbet differs in eastern and western Africa; the Western Yellow-spotted Barbet sings a simple accelerating hoot while the Eastern Yellow-spotted Barbet has a more rapid and guttural purr.

Boesman is also sharing his expertise on bird vocalizations as an associate editor of Birds of the World. Boesman has co-authored 1170 species accounts and counting.

Andean Flamingo

Andean Flamingo Phoenicoparrus andinus

  • Antofagasta, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

“Sharing my recordings has been very satisfying. It’s not just sharing them with other birders it’s also incredible to learn what other people are doing with my recordings,” said Boesman. His recordings have been used in documentary films, museum exhibits, music compositions, children’s books and more, even as QR codes on picnic tables in nature reserves in Holland!

Before ending my chat with Boesman, I asked him for a few recording tips. Boesman recommends choosing a recording unit that balances quality and portability. “The microphone is the main part of the recording system,” says Boesman, “so if you can afford it, it pays to get a good one.” For years Boesman used a Sennheiser shotgun microphone gradually switching to mainly using a Telinga parabola. But Boesman also says that “every recording is useful even if you use a smartphone.”

In closing Boesman offers this advice to recordists, “use your ears, don’t just listen for the loud sounds and the first sound that catches your attention, listen to all of the sounds. Any sound or call is all part of the vocabulary of a bird and if we pay more attention to all of the sounds, we will gain a better understanding of the vocal behavior of each species. There are still so many different sounds that we don’t know or have hardly recorded.”

Whether it is the insignificant insectlike song of a Pennant-winged Nightjar during its spectacular flight display at dusk:

Pennant-winged Nightjar Caprimulgus vexillarius

  • Luapula, Zambia

or the juvenile call of a Garden Warbler recorded this month just close to home:

Garden Warbler Sylvia borin

  • Vlaamse Gewest, Belgium

The Macaulay Library is pleased to announce that Boesman’s recordings from Africa and Asia are now available in the archive with more coming soon. Take a tour of some of Boesman’s recordings.

Thank you, Peter Boesman for sharing your recordings with the world and helping advance our knowledge of the diversity of bird songs and calls.