Nature Sounds Society Workshop (Part 2)

Sandhill Cranes

Of course, the biggest part of the workshop was getting out to appreciate nature sounds! We were fortunate to have great weather for the morning recording sessions- the heat didn’t really take over until late morning when we were mostly done.  For more about the sessions at the field station, check out Part 1.

 

 

Eric listening to the dawn chorus

The first full day saw us waking up at 2:45AM to drive from the field station to Sierra Valley on the other side of the pass. Our caravan parked along a gravel road in a marshy area at about “nautical twilight”- that time before sunrise when the sky lightens enough to accurately discern the horizon line. We spread out along the road as the eerie pulsing “winnow” of Wilson’s snipe sounded out of the darkness. Gradually the sky became lighter, and we were treated to a whole range of sounds including bullfrogs, sandhill cranes, 3 kinds of blackbirds, meadowlarks, cows, and one of the most powerful and prolonged coyote chorus that I’ve ever heard. I can only speak for myself, but it took every ounce of restraint not ruin 18 people’s sound recordings by yelling “Holy crap that was amazing!” (we were specifically warned not to do this the night before)

A Brewer's Blackbird pauses on a fence line in Sierra Valley

Our next stop was a one-lane bridge a little farther up the road. The bridge hosts a large colony of cliff swallows, so we were treated to the sights and sounds of hundreds of swallows darting and wheeling around us.

Cliff Swallows, Sierra Valley

After a quick stop to eat (coffee, breakfast sandwiches, fruit, homemade muffins and granola- the organizers spared no effort to keep us happy and powered up!), we headed to a forest meadow site called Carmen Valley. It was getting hot and summer insect sounds started to replace bird vocalizations before too long, although we did see some of the typical Sierra Nevada birds like White-headed Woodpecker, Lincoln Sparrow, and Mountain Chickadee. Most exciting was surprising a young bear with unusually blonde fur. The bear was definitely more scared of us than we were of it.

Brewer's Blackbird

The next morning we woke up at the leisurely hour of 3:15 AM to check out the dawn chorus at the Yuba Pass summit just a few miles up the road from the field station. The mosquitoes finally found us up here, but even so, it was well worth it to hear the forest come alive. There’s not much that beats hearing the ethereal flute-like song of hermit thrushes in a towering forest or the sounds of a sapsucker’s drumming echoing among the trunks. It was also a treat to see several flocks of Evening Grosbeaks along the side of the road.

Dawn light, Yuba Pass Summit

Male Evening Grosbeak

Beautiful scenery, great wildlife, and intellectual and aesthetic stimulation. What could be better than that! I definitely hope to return one day, and would recommend others with similar interests in nature sounds and soundscapes to check out the Nature Sounds Society and the field recording workshop in particular.

Nature Sounds Society Workshop (Part 1)

Alan La Pointe recording in Sierra Valley

I’ve spent a decade recording sage-grouse pops and whistles, and yet this weekend I felt like a novice. And that’s a good thing! I had the amazing good fortune to be invited to give a talk at the 2017 Nature Sounds Society Field Recording Workshop. This was one of the first times I’ve gotten to interact with serious nature recordists. I’m talking about people who sweat the details of getting the gear and technique right to capture what it feels like to be somewhere else. I’ll freely admit that I’m much more of a data collector, and it was wonderful to spend time with these folks who seem to bring together the best parts of aesthetics, technology, and love of nature.

The workshop, the 33rd of its kind, was held at the Yuba Pass field campus of San Francisco State University (north of Truckee, California). This is a gorgeous field station nestled among towering pines near a rushing river in the Sierra Nevadas. We slept on surprisingly comfortable cots in large tents on raised platforms. Meals and lectures were held in a 2-story main building where our class would mingle with other station users and staff. We had, in my opinion, a perfect combination of amenities: Hot water– Check. Flush toilets– Check. Cell service– Not Available.

Looking up at the Yuba Pass Field Campus

In the evenings, organizers Dan Dugan and Sharon Perry along with tech consultants Greg Weddig and Steve Sergeant helped us test our recording gear to prepare for the next morning. We were also invited to test out and borrow spare equipment. Mauricio Shrader, a birding-by-ear instructor, provided helpful tutorials, on what to listen for while out in the field.

For me, it was really valuable to hear so many perspectives on nature sound recording. Steve Seargent led a roundtable discussion about how best to set up a relationship with a state or national park and provide valuable services in documenting their soundscapes. Jim Metzner, host of Pulse of the Planet, shared several enchanting clips from his decades of travel and interviews, and gave his perspective on what it meant to capture an audience’s attention and imagination with sound. I spoke about the role of sound in sage-grouse biology and conservation.

As someone who last shopped for audio gear more than a decade ago, the hands on demonstrations were particularly interesting for me. Dan, Greg, and Steve set up a selection of more than a dozen different kinds of microphones, from omni to shotgun to parabolas, along with several stereo rigs. It was so cool to be able to put on headphones and test them all out. Sharon led the apparently famous “Build your own windscreen” workshop too. I’ve now got a shaggy shotgun windscreen that looks like a cross between an opossum and a giant hotdog!

Lupines dot the ground around the field campus buildings

Of course most of the best parts were getting out to some beautiful spots to record. I’ll talk about that in Part 2.

2017 Field Season

For the first time in more than a decade, I will not be out with the sage-grouse this season. I’ll be teaching in Davis for both the winter and spring quarters. That means I’m able to help a bit with the on-campus video projects, and look longingly at field updates from Gail and Ryane. I’ll definitely miss seeing the sage-grouse and their antics, watching spring try to overcome winter’s grip on the landscape, and our local rituals (I can almost taste a Bonzai Burger with a pint of Rockchuck Rye at the Gannett Grill in Lander).

For those of you wanting to follow Chicken Camp, you can check out Ryane’s twitter account @RyaneLogsdon. Word so far is that the beginning of this season looks like the end of last season, with a very wet landscape.

Turkey/Cat Video

Wild turkeys occasionally do goofy things, and when someone captures that behavior on video, I sometimes get contacted to try to make sense of it all. This happened last week, when a video of a flock of turkeys walking in a circle in the middle of the street around a dead cat went viral. I was quoted in articles at a website called the Verge, as well as NPR and Fox News.

About the video- which shows a flock of more than a dozen turkeys walking slowly, clockwise, at a distance of a few meters from a road-killed cat. There are a few aspects to consider:

Why do the care about a dead cat?  My thought on this is that the behavior looks like predator inspection behavior. This is a reaction to learn about a predator that does not pose an immediate danger (as a sprinting carnivore or soaring/diving eagle might). The behavior we see in the video indicates the turkeys are attentive to the roadkill, but nervous about it (keeping their distance, and also staying in motion so that they can flee more quickly). This behavior could do a few things. They could gain additional information about this particular predator (is it sleeping, will it wake up, is it about to pounce). The inspection could ensure everyone in the flock sees it and in particular that younger birds can learn about potential danger. Finally, this kind of behavior would alert a predator that they are discovered, and that an ambush attack is unlikely to be successful. For this last possibility, it resembles mobbing behavior that is found in a variety of species.

I’ve seen somewhat similar behavior when a coyote approached a flock of turkeys. The flock was alert and alarm calling, and parted as the coyote walked through. They seemed to want to keep an eye on the predator while not getting too close.

A slightly different version of this is that the turkeys may see the dead cat as something unusual and novel in their home range. Thus it could be that they don’t start by knowing the cat is a predator (or similar enough to natural predators like bobcats), but instead are inspecting to find out the danger level of this new thing they’ve stumbled across. Functionally this would be pretty similar to what I describe above.

Why are they moving in a circle?  Probably the oddest thing about this video is not that the birds care about a dead cat, but rather the eerie sight of them walking in a circle. I think there are two parts to this. First, their movements are governed by the tension between wanting to observe the cat, but also being fearful of it, which results in remaining motion but at a relatively fixed distance from the cat. To far, and they couldn’t see what’s going on, but a closer approach may be risky if the cat is a crouched bobcat instead of a dead housecat.

When turkeys are foraging they often spread out, but if they are just walking from place to place, they may move in single file. This follow the leader behavior may have something to do with the circling behavior as well. In particular, I think the size of this flock of turkeys was coincidentally perfect to create a perpetual circling motion of the flock. Possibly as the first bird continued the circular trajectory around the cat, it caught up to the last bird, who was just arriving to inspect the cat. The effect would be like the head of a conga line catching up and starting to follow the person at the end of the train.

I’ll note that for whatever reason, turkeys seem to have a propensity to get stuck in these circular movement loops. I’ve seen (in person and on youtube) fairly persistent circling behavior in much smaller groups of male turkeys exhibiting various forms of chasing or aggression.

How does this relate to other animal “funeral” and “mourning” behavior? This is a big topic and I’m not going to attempt to review everything here. Some birds are known to have “funerals”– mainly corvids like crows and magpies. My former labmate Teresa Iglesias studied ‘cacaphonous aggregations’ of scrub jays in response to the presence of a dead jay. In a lengthy set of experiments, she compiled evidence that the response to the dead jay is similar in some ways to the response to a predator, and that the behavior of recruiting other jays is likely related to the potential cue of risk that a dead jay provides. I don’t mean to suggest all such mourning behavior in animals falls under this hypothesis, but I do think it shares similarities with the behavior we see in the turkeys.

Of note- I AM ALWAYS INTERESTED IN SEEING THESE VIDEOS, AND THERE ARE VARIOUS QUESTIONS THAT COULD BE ANSWERED WITH ENOUGH EXAMPLES, SO PLEASE FEEL FREE TO ALERT ME ABOUT ANY NEW VIDEOS THAT YOU SEE.

Photo Credits

Photo: Gail Patricelli

I’ll use this page to attempt to maintain this as a list of photos that have been picked up by various media outlets and non-profits. Most of these appear on my Flickr account. Most are available for non-commercial use (check the license), so if you see something you’d like to use, please let me know!

Sage-grouse Photos

Center for Biological Diversity

Boise State Public Radio [here, here, here]

Yale Environment 360.

Nature Conservancy Blog [here , here]

Other Photos

Golden Gate Audubon 2015-2016 Annual Report

Berkeleyside [here, here]

KQED Quest

Super-moon photo sent to BLM-Wyoming, National BLM, and Department of Interior. instagram accounts.