A Coulee Dawn

This lively dawn chorus was recorded in a small pothole coulee in Eastern Washington, one of the numerous Seep Lakes of the Channeled Scablands.

There’s a lot to unpack here…

This is the the Columbia Plateau, a large basalt flow cut through by the Columbia River. During the last ice age, 10-20 thousand years ago, the ice dam blocking what we now call Glacial Lake Missoula collapsed, unleashing one of the largest known ancient mega-floods. This flood, and dozens of smaller but still amazingly powerful floods, swept across northern Idaho and through Washington to the Columbia River. It washed the topsoil off much of the plateau, ripping out chunks of basalt and eroding great channels we call coulees. The best known of these is the Grand Coulee, known both for its… grand size… and for the dam that filled it with water. Early white settlers in the area called this land “scablands” because nothing could grow on it.

Fast forward to the 1900s and the creation of a network of dams and reservoirs including the Grand Coulee Dam as part of the Columbia Basin Project, the largest water reclamation project in US history. The CBP is worth learning about, but is a history lesson for another day. Among other consequences, it was responsible for the upheaval and forced relocation of thousands of indigenous peoples, eliminating their access to the migratory Salmon their lives relied upon, decimating fish stocks above the dams, and rendering numerous towns and settlements uninhabitable. The expansion of agriculture production has been proven beneficial though, turning North Central Washington into one of the largest and most productive tree fruit producing areas on the planet.

One of the unintended consequences that is either beneficial or disastrous depending upon whom you speak with has been the hydrological seepage from the reservoirs into the many downstream coulees and potholes, resulting in the creation of hundres of lakes of varying sizes. These brand new wetland ecosystems quickly became popular with migratory and resident wetland birds who now call them home. They are also regularly stocked and prove popular fishing destinations.

The pothole coulee this recording is from is one of those new wetlands.

One final history/ ecological history lesson: the American Bullfrog is indigenous to the eastern portion of North America. It’s historical natural extant just barely creeped into what is now the State of Oklahoma. During the Gold Rush period of the 1800s they were imported to the West to meet the “sophisticated tastes” of wealthy East Coasters. Frog farms were set up throughout California, Oregon, and Washington to meet demand. When that demand eventually died and the farms closed, farmers released their stock in wetlands… creating one of the most voracious invasive pests in the West. Read more about it here: https://www.spokesman.com/stories/2004/aug/15/bad-news-bullfrogs/

I have mixed feelings when I hear bullfrogs in the soundscape. They’re an invasive, dangerous pest. But can we, WILL we be able to restrain them back to their original habitat range? It’s doubtful. Just as Pigeons (Rock Doves), European Starlings, Chukar, and Pheasants among other species (I’ll include symbiotic species like cattle, sheep, and pigs here, too) have become an indelible part of our wild spaces, should bullfrogs just be accepted? I’m mixed. I admit, I love the sound of a bullfrog chorus. It’s a pretty spectacular thing to hear. It’s also a key sign of a wetland zone. If I hear bullfrogs, I go looking to see what else is in the water.

So to the recording…

This is a true Dawn chorus, meaning that it captures the entire Dawn period, from First Light, 4:33 AM, through Sunrise, 5:03 AM. It continues little ways into the daylight after Sunrise, but it’s really just more of the same by that point.

There are three dominant voices in this Dawn Chorus: Coulee crickets (I’m not making that name up: Anabrus longipes), Yellow-headed Blackbirds, which, if I had to pick, would be my single favorite bird, and the Bullfrogs. Listen to the crickets, thick and lush in the twilight, slowly drop off and become a sparser presence towards the end. In a few hours they’ll actually stop singing during the period the sun is highest.

You’ll also catch wind of Canyon Wrens, with their drooping song, Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Nighthawks passing over head, Tree Swallows flitting about, and a distant Rock Wren.

Click through the comments and markers in the soundcloud track for callouts of some of the various voices.

As always, thanks for listening!

Quiet Parks International

I’m deeply honored to be a featured recordist in the Quiet Experiences section of Quiet Parks International’s website.

Click here to visit:

https://www.quietparks.org/natures-stories-by-andy-martin

QPI grew out of Gordon Hempton’s One Square Inch of Silence Foundation. It “is a non-profit committed to the preservation of quiet for the benefit of all life.”

With a recognition of and commitment to the benefits of naturally quiet locations on a personal, social, and natural level, Quiet Parks International is an organization that aligns with all I hold dear in searching for and documenting natural soundscapes.

To be included with recordists such as Gordon Hempton, Thomas Beverly, and Cofan tribal members in Ecuador, is humbling.

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