Tag Archives: Birds

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

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.

Sinlahekin Valley, May 20-22, 2017

NWS10: Sinlahekin Valley, May 20-22, 2017

IMG_7116.JPGSinlahekin Valley is the heart of the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area, a large unit managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. A mixture of ranch land, managed big-game area, protected wildlife refuge, and dedicated recreation area, Sinlahekin is a beautiful, bio-diverse and extremely habitat diverse region protected from human over-run more from remoteness than anything else.

Continue reading Sinlahekin Valley, May 20-22, 2017

Colockum Wildlife Area, July 05-09, 2016

Infrequent Updates

Okay, we’re now at mid-March, 2017. A year ago this month we were in the midst of Kickstartingthis project. How have we done? What are the hits and misses, successes and failures we’ve had along the way?

NWS03: Colockum Wildlife Area, July 05-09, 2016

I hadn’t originally intended to stop in the Colockum Wildlife Area. In fact, it was a last minute decision made at a pit stop for gas. My original destination had been the Toppenish National Wildlife Refuge before continuing on to pick up my daughter from a camp in Central Oregon. I’m glad I stopped and made the decision to stay instead of continuing as it turns out the main accessible areas of Toppenish are flooded with anthropogenic noise, mainly from the the busy highway that connects to the main entrance. While it would have helped illustrate the problems with the invasion of human-caused noise pollution, it would have been a miserable and likely wasted trip.

Continue reading Colockum Wildlife Area, July 05-09, 2016

Columbia National Wildlife Refuge, June 09-12, 2016

Half-way report, part 2 of 5

Here we are, at the beginning of November, 2016, at the half-way mark for The Northwest Soundscapes Project. How have we done? What are the hits and misses, successes and failures we’ve had along the way?

NWS02: Columbia National Wildlife Refuge, June 09-12, 2016

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Channeled Scablands

The second trip of this project was to the Columbia Wildlife Refuge from June 9-12. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was certainly not prepared for the stunning natural beauty of this location. Located in the the Channeled Scablands of the Northwest, the land around this area was carved out dramatically and violently during a series of ice age deluges. The Cordilleran Ice Sheet dammed up the Glacial Lake Missoula, which periodically broke free and scoured the land here free of soil and most life. Giant pot-hole-like formations called coulees show testimony to the power of the drainage, and to this day provide quiet refuge to animals such as birds, rabbits, and coyotes, as well as providing a rainwater collection point for marshy reeds to grow.

Continue reading Columbia National Wildlife Refuge, June 09-12, 2016