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

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.

Yellow-Headed Blackbirds

Yellow-Headed Blackbird

Near the main entrance I found a marsh that is popular with Yellow-Headed Blackbirds. Raucous cousins of Redwing Blackbirds, these birds sound like they should live in a jungle. The males sit on exposed reeds or tree limbs and make great clock-wise swings with their heads and wings, letting out a long “marooooooow” call that sounds like a horribly frightened house-cat. Meanwhile, the females stay out-of-sight in the reeds with the young, but they create such a loud chatter it’s difficult to refer to them as “hidden”. Also abundantly present in this recording are mourning doves. One of the great birding tragedies of Seattle is that it lies west of the Cascade Mountains, a range the Mourning Dove has historically avoided crossing despite being resident sin nearly every other part of North America.

Cliff Swallows

Cliff Swallow nests

Traveling into the refuge, I came upon a Cliff Swallow rookery. Thousands of swallows, darting in and out of the cliff, hanging in hundreds or thousands of nests. Their numbers were so great that the presence of two Red-tailed Hawks wasn’t something to be afraid of. Every time one would swoop close, the nests would empty and a great cloud of swallows would pester the hawk until it left.

The Columbia Wildlife Refuge is, like Conboy, an important stopover for many migrating birds, including Sandhill Crane. I missed the Crane stopover for this year, but did manage to catch a few other temporary residents, including the American Bittern. I’d never heard a bittern before this week, and so I was not actually aware of what I was hearing until I inquired at the refuge headquarters. To put it simply, Bitterns sound like great, giant drops of water followed by a loud swallowing-gulp.

recording sage

Because of the long summer-time aridness of the refuge, vegetation is sparse. Prairie grasses and sage dominate the landscape outside of the marshy coulees. There are times in which I felt like I was out just to record wind through sage.



My final night I set up near the same location I had the evening before, but in a higher elevation, away from the marsh and into the plateau. I’d heard coyotes coming from that direction the night before and I needed to see if I could catch a hint of them before leaving. I wasn’t disappointed, being scared half-witted by the sound that erupted in my headphones just at the moment I’d thought I’d missed them. I was admittedly nervous about going back up to collect my microphones but later realized the pack had likely moved on and remembered that coyotes don’t hunt human-sized meat. I think. I hope.


Traveling home on the last day I made a couple pit stops. The first was to record some particularly impatient cattle lined up by a roadside pasture waiting for breakfast. The next was to head into the forests after passing over the Cascades to record… some cascades.

hungry cattle

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