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Merlin in My Life

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

It’s 100F in Mexico, and dead howler monkeys are falling out of trees. Here in Vermont it’s only 90F, and nothing is falling other than my spirits at these signs of worsening climate change. I’m standing in the woods a few yards from my cottage, left hand swatting the multitudes of insects flinging themselves at my sweaty face, right hand aiming my phone at the treetops. I have just installed Merlin, the birdsong identification app, and I’m eager to see what it will do.

It won’t take much to impress me, since my ability to identify birdsong is limited to chickadees, cardinals, phoebes, and wood thrushes—and those only under ideal conditions, i.e., when just one bird is singing at a time. At the moment, so many birds are belting out so many different songs that I can’t even identify a chickadee—and there must be a chickadee. There always is a chickadee.

And, according to Merlin, there is, and not only a chickadee. In less than ten minutes under the trees, the app discerns the following (yes, I know there is nothing more boring than other people’s bird lists, but here goes anyway): great crested flycatcher, red-eyed vireo, red-winged blackbird, american redstart, yellow warbler, hermit thrush, black and white warbler, northern cardinal, song sparrow. All of them hidden in the dark green canopy, singing their little hearts out.

The cacophony above me makes me think of an orchestra tuning up before a concert: trills, tremolos, scales, arpeggios, and doble-stops by woodwinds, brasses, and strings. And Merlin is the new Leonard Bernstein—he of the long-ago Young People’s Concerts—saying, this is what a clarinet sounds like, and here is a bassoon, a piccolo, a triangle, a viola.

Why do the names of things make such a difference? Why does it thrill me that one of those persistent unseen tweeters is a great crested flycatcher? I wouldn’t know one if it bit me, and I hope it has a field day catching the bugs that are flying into my nose, ears, and eyes, but that is not what excites me. It’s the name, which conjures up something between a cockatoo and a great blue heron. Likewise the red-eyed vireo, which calls to mind the possibility of green-or-blue-eyed vireos. And the american redstart, whose dynamic name makes me imagine him as a tiny athlete in a red shirt, forever poised at some starting line, raring to go.

Overwhelmed by Merlin’s wealth of information—the app not only identifies birds, but tells you everything you ever wanted to know about them—I wandered back to the house. And when the sun went down and things started to cool down, I heard him quite close to the window—the one I wait for every spring, the singer whose eerie song transports me to realms I don’t normally visit: the wood thrush. When I hear a wood thrush, I can do something that thirty years of meditation haven’t yet taught me. I stop thinking, worrying, planning, and strategizing and, for as long as the song lasts, I hang suspended on those clear, liquid, otherworldly notes.

Merlin in hand, I expect my knowledge of birds to increase by leaps and bounds. While our technological era is at least partly responsible for the ecological crisis, it has also brought us the miracle of Merlin. So while monkeys fall off the trees in Mexico and polar bears starve on their icefloes,  I can at least aim my phone out the window and know what bird is saying what.

On a more cheerful note, listen to American composer Amy Beach’s piano piece featuring precise transcriptions of the song of the hermit thrush. It is almost as magical as the song of the bird himself.

6 Responses

  1. Lali! Yes, I simply had the most Wonderful day with my newly loaded Merlin app about a week ago. Not sure why American robin and Carolina wren were all I recorded, nor why when I faced a serenading robin she was identified as the omnipresent Carolina wren.
    When I was awoken this same night/morning at circa 4 am by a lilting song, I realized that at last I could identify this bird which frequently awakens me at this unconscionable hour. I reached for my phone, no app… and none since. Birdman Ken O. has offered to help, again.
    I so miss the Hermit Thrush I used to hear Adirondack evenings.

  2. The song of the Hermit Thrush has always been magical to me. It took on even more meaning with the loss of my father, who first pointed it out to me. It was his favorite.

  3. So thankful for the birds! Here in the Pacific Northwest, I use the Merlin app daily, while my son uses it in Brooklyn. I love that you discovered it too. I performed the Amy Beach piece in a solo recital many years ago. Just beautiful!

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