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.

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]

National Audubon Society Action alert [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.

Photo Milestone

Photo G. Patricelli & S. Harter

One of my main hobbies is photography. Almost all of the photos on this site are my own. I only put a handful of pretty and/or relevant images here on my blog– most of my best photos end up on Flickr. Spurred by a lot of views of some photos I took for a sustainable farming non-profit, my Flickr account just logged it’s 100,000th view! Obviously an arbitrary milestone, but I’m not going to lie- it’s fun to know people are out there occasionally looking at my photos.

 

My most viewed photo is still one of my favorites. This is a night-shot from our Wyoming field work. We were out on ATVs spotlighting to find and catch sage-grouse. I took a 3-hour time exposure to capture the star trails as well as the lights from our activity.

For me this is a hobby, not a business. This is particularly true for the images I capture in Wyoming. I get the privilege of living and working in one of the most beautiful places on earth working with a fascinating but threatened species. I’ve earned this privilege because various permitting agencies see the value in our research, not because they like my photos and want to see me make money on them. That’s why I make my photos available on Flickr as “non-commercial, creative commons.” Any media, education, non-profit use that helps inform the public about our research, sage-grouse biology, or aids in the conservation of grouse and their ecosystem are fulfilling for me personally (and fit squarely under the “broader impacts” mandate of our research as well).

Happily, a few of my photos have been picked up recently, including for couple of Associated Press articles [1,2] as well as a Yale Environment article and an NRDC piece. Sage-grouse will be in the news more and more, and it’s nice that I’ve been able to help put at face to the name, so to speak.

If you are interested in using photos, I’d definitely love to hear about it! Sage-grouse photos are in a couple of albums: either Sage-grouse or, for typically more research related, Wyoming Field Work.

The Sagebrush Sea

We are back from our field season in Wyoming! I’ll recap our season soon, but first wanted to post an announcement for a great PBS Nature program airing this week. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology produced a beautiful film about the sagebrush ecosystem called The Sagebrush Sea. Much of it was filmed in west-central Wyoming near our field site (although I’m not sure any shots from the Hudson area made it in the final cut). One of the producers is Marc Danztker, a collaborator who got his PhD with long-time sage-grouse biologist and eminent behavioral ecologist Dr. Jack Bradbury. It was Marc who first set up a microphone array on a sage-grouse lek– he did so in order to measure the odd acoustic directionality of some parts of the sage-grouse display.

The crew of "The Sagebrush Sea" visit chicken camp (2014)

The program got a write-up on the Nature Conservancy’s blog Cool Green Science, written by none other than Lander biologist Holly Copeland. Holly has become a great friend to Chicken Camp. She and her husband both came out to help trap sage-grouse, and they’ve hosted our entire crew for a bbq for the past few years. Holly also does important work on land-use issues related to the sage-grouse and is currently on Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team tasked with revising sage-grouse protections using the best science available to help keep the birds’ populations as strong as possible and off of the endangered species list.