Category Archives: Dawn Chorus

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!

Long Swamp Dawn, 2019-07-17

This is my last Long Swamp post. I promise. My last Long Swamp post from 2019-07.

As I mentioned in last night’s Dusk post, I’ve fallen in love with the mountains of the Okanogan. The wet meadows, swampy bogs, dense forests, deep riparian zones, grassy ridge tops, and more are perfect for finding sonically rich, naturally quiet locations. Most of the special places are difficult to reach from Seattle, but that’s fine by me. It means more opportunities to record with without interruption.

The morning starts crisp, clear, and early, with the first local voice an early-rising Song Sparrow at 0m21s (0428). He’s soon joined by a Swainson’s Thrush who works through a minute of one-note calls, then buzzes and churls, before finally breaking into full, beautiful song at 2m17s (0430). His dense, spiraling, ethereal notes spin away like fluted wisps in the morning. I listen in awe.

A fellow thrush and close cousin of the Swainson’s, an American Robin, finally wakes up enough to join full-throated at 4m23s (0432). I usually expect to hear Robins before anyone else, but everyone’s out-and-about early in this still dark twilight.

There isn’t much of a wait for light, though. The 0434 Dawn begins at 5m58s with First Light, when the sun is just 6 degrees below the horizon and the first fingers of sunlight creep across the hills. Nautical Twilight is over, with Civil Twilight not far behind.

At 8m43s (0436) a Lincoln’s Sparrow joins the chorus. Like Song Sparrows, they have a wide individual repertoire. I’d not heard this variation before camping at Long Swamp, and it delights me every time I hear it now.

As if to show off how well song carries in this place, an Olive-Sided Flycatcher sings “Quick! THREE beers!” in the deep background. You can hear it well at 17m43s (0445) while everyone else rests. Birders have a reputation as boring or stodgy older folks. That the common phonetics for these little birds is “Quick! THREE beers!” leads me to think it’s a cover. We’re partying folk at heart. Pull up to the pub. Quick! Three beers! Not two. Not just one, but THREE beers!

This isn’t just a place for songbirds. A Mallard rants on about the difficult life of a duck while wading around the swamp, being particularly petulant at 34m37s (0503).

The 0515 sunrise at 46m58s brings an end to Dawn and a start to daylight hours. That doesn’t bring an end to the chorus, though, which carries on as if time is just a construct of the mind. Soon, however, the chipmunks wake up and start their constant territorial squabbling and chittering. From 55m54s (0524) onward the birds have heavy sonic competition. Perhaps this encourages them to begin foraging. Perhaps it’s just a useful time to pack it in. In any case, I’m quickly reminded that chipmunks are skittish can be alarmed by anything, such as discovering a set of microphones near their home at 59m59s (0528). This powerful blast represents the one “edit” I’ve made to this recording, dropping the volume of the chitters by more than 12 decibels. You’re welcome for your speakers not being overloaded, by the way.

By 1h11m42s (0540) the Dawn chorus is largely over, and all the actors have dispersed for a day of foraging, living, and territorial squabbling. Locally, from 1h19m30s (0548) to 1h45m0s (0614), the soundscape is a mix of wandering chipmunks and nearby waterfowl activity, most likely a Mallard family browsing about. I love hearing scuttling and fluttering, but feathered splashing nearby always stands out as something a little more special to my ears. It may just be that its a sound I don’t hear around the house from pets, so I’m drawn to its subtle familiarity-yet-alien-ness.

Speaking of fluttering, soft chatter of Tree Swallows darts around a long-winded Song Sparrow from 2h02m55s (0632) on. Both flutter and skip around the microphones as they carry on.

I sit and listen, a silent, smiling guest.

Long Swamp

Just a few miles away and a little farther up the mountains from Thirtymile Meadows can be found Long Swamp, a very large, highly biodiverse wetland complex.
Like the wet meadows, swamps in this area form through the collection of meltwater of the preceding winter. Unlike the shallow bowls of the meadows, though, the swamps form in the shallow creased valleys between rising prominences. Sometimes the water drains away into a creek at the end of the of the valley, but they are just as likely to simply seep slowly into the topsoil to re-appear elsewhere as a natural spring. Long Swamp does both.

This morning Long Swamp was playing host to Lincoln’s Sparrows, Wilson’s Snipe, Wilson’s Warblers, woodpeckers, Willow Flycatchers, Olive-Sided Flycatchers,Western Tanagers, White-crowned Sparrows, Hermit Thrushes, American Robins, Ravens, Cedar Waxwings, Warbling Vireos, Northern Flickers, a large mammal that wandered through around the 2h46m mark, and another around 4h47m.

I’d like to say that this was a true long, unbroken soundscape, but I did find the need to remove thee aircraft that buzzed through over the course of five hours. Other than that, there was very little done to clean this recording. Bordering the Pasayten Wilderness to the West, Long Swamp is a nearly pristine environment.

Beginning around twenty minutes before first light in the last few minutes of Nautical Twilight, it’s easy to see that some birds are early risers. Wilson’s Snipe are are crepuscular, so we can expect to hear the swoop winnowing of their tails, but I was surprised to hear the high fluting of Hermit Thrushes and buzzy “zip-pew!” of Willow Flycatchers already filling the air. Barely nine minutes into the recording and a White-crowned Sparrow practices the first part of his song to our left. Fifteen minutes later and we hear the morning tuk-tuk laughter of an American Robin. By First Light at 0434 we’re able to hear the “Quick! Three beers!” of Olive-Sided Flycatchers and the distant trilling of Lincoln’s Sparrows. Through this period chipmunks have been scattering about, already signaling their territory with rapid fire chitters.

Around 0459 (25 minutes) a Western Tanager begins to come into focus. Sounding like lazy Robins, they are easily confused. The easiest way to hear the difference is to learn the general cadence. Tanagers pause after every 5-10 “lines”. Robins, however, sing in blocks of 4-6 “lines”, but barely pause before plowing through.

With so much activity already occurring around us, the 0513 sunrise goes by barely noticed.

What I truly love about listening to a place like Long Swamp is the ebb and flow of life. Whether it’s woodpeckers hunting too the fluted tunes of Hermit Thrushes at 3h54m or the chipmunk taking over just a minute later at 3h56m, the frustrated “kyew” of a Northern Flicker at 4h37m or the fast zoom of a large insect or hummingbird at 4h25m, there’s always activity, the literal humming and buzzing of life. It goes on all around us every day wherever we are. Tucked inside our dense, noisy urban and suburban homes it’s easy to forget and to believe that humanity is life. Far from those urban centers, though, stripped of noisy cars and cellphones and H/VAC systems and airplanes are places like Long Swamp, where natural life continues unabated or stressed by the rigors of anthropogenic sounds.

Thirtymile Dawn

Thirtymile Meadows is a wet, subalpine meadow high in the Okanogan National Forest. A natural shallow bowl, it collects meltwater from each winter and slowly drains away through innumerable soft tinkling streams. In such a wide open space it can be difficult to know where to point microphones. When I visited in the Summer of 2019 I was never certain where the next morning’s dawn chorus would arrive from. Past migrant season there was no consistent resting place for the wildlife every night.

Filled with chipmunks, Hermit Thrushes, Olive-sided Flycatchers, Lincoln’s Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, Woodpeckers, Ravens, Clark’s Nutcrackers, American Robins, and more, the meadow is a feast for the eyes and ears of the quiet observer.

This meadow and the surrounding scarred forest are still recovering from the massive Thirtymile Wildfire that began from an unattended campfire almost 20 years ago. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirtymile_Fire They stand as a testimony to the resilience of nature against all that we humans throw at it. Fragile ecosystems are stronger than we once believed, but our negligence does them no favors.

This is the same meadow as our friend the coyote. In fact, this recording is from the very same overnight. soundcloud.com/soundeziner/sets/coyote-in-the-high-country

Beginning in twilight silence, we progress through the earliest voices of First Light at 32 minutes and Sunrise at 72 minutes. After a brief period of the dawn rush of air, we spend the last hour listening in on the comings-and-goings and daily lives of Thirtymile Meadows. Throughout it all, the soft occasional tinkling of water flows around and beneath.

Unfortunately, one of my microphones failed overnight, and I ended up with a lopsided recording. I’ve accounted for this somewhat in the the master, but it’s an imperfect image that I’m hoping to replace this summer when I return.

A little Ear Candy

Hey all! I’ve been busy working on the next couple of releases. In the meantime, I thought I’d offer a little something for y’all to listen to.

I feel fortunate to have been able to record over an hour of unbroken natural sound in the Olympic National Forest at the Snider-Jackson trail head. Starting during Civil Twilight, sun rises in this recording around the 30 minute mark, although the Thrushes were awake and active long before then. Robins, Varied Thrushes, Flycatchers, woodpeckers, squirrels, Pacific Wrens, and more fill these moss-covered woods to the background wash of the Calawah River.

Sunrise was at 5:42 on this morning, with the first almost-audible human-related sounds of very distant vehicles starting nearly an hour after that. It’s difficult to comprehend the sound of the wilderness we are losing. Even here, deep in the mountainous, moss-covered trees of the Olympic National Forest on the border of the Olympic National Park, it’s only by creeping out in the early hours of the morning that we can hear long stretches of natural sound unbroken by human-created noises. With the ever-encroaching settlements of humankind, how much longer will it be before even that is lost?

I had driven out to the Snider-Jackson Trailhead with a friend during the wee-hours of the night. Our original destination was the Quinalt Rainforest, but when we got to the trailheads there were dozens of vehicles already lined up with even more sleeping hikers ready to set out by dawn. We ducked around to the Hoh Rainforest, but with the same result. A little stressed and a little tired we made our way out in the direction of the Bogachiel Valley. Along the way we realized that trail lined up neatly with one of the loudest rivers on the peninsula. While that would make for a neat recording opportunity, we also wanted to sleep and maybe hear birds during the day. We finally ended up driving up to the Snider-Jackson trail, a trail that starts out in the National Forest, but crosses into the National Park about one mile in. It’s a stark contrast… from the “young” (less than one hundred-years-old) trees of the Forest into the giant, ancient woods of the Park. But! Before wee could hike up the trail we to make sure we caught the dawn recording.

I’ll be heading up into the Quinalt in October for a 10 day trip and a long hike. It’ll be the high-time for the Elk rut, and I want to be sure to catch their bugles with as little human noise intrusion as possible.

Happy listening!

-andy