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.

An exciting couple of days

Gail giving driving lessons to the Boise folks.

An early visit from our collaborator Jen Forbey and a few other members of her lab should have been exciting enough for early March at our camp. Jen has been looking at the interactions between grouse and sage- basically how sage nutrition and chemical defenses affect grouse physiology and foraging behavior. Her visit was for some mutual training possibilities. Her graduate student Marcella has a lot of trapping experience, and was able to show us a new spotlighting technique that we’ve now adopted. It’s an “on foot” method, where birds are first seen from a truck driving on an established road, then a pair of people walk out to the bird, one with the spotlight and a portable speaker blaring music, and the other close on their heels with a net. We trained Marcella on our video and buttprint protocols, and also got her going with a recording unit to get some recordings from her Idaho population. The Boise team also completed sage-sampling at three leks to look at forage quality surrounding these display grounds. Jen and her crew were fun even when we were squeezing 13 people in to the trailer for dinner!

Gyrfalcon & grouse

I mentioned some excitement. First was the once-a-decade (or more) visit of a large arctic falcon called a Gyrfalcon to Cottontail. Sean and James got some digiscope photos of a falcon that we initially assumed was Prairie Falcon, but further review of the images suggested it might be the larger Gyrfalcon. Not only did they see it, but they saw it make several passes over the lek before finally killing and eating a male sage-grouse! Sadly it was a male who was already a favorite- named Roundasaurus Leks due to his buttprint looking like the head of a T-Rex. We almost never see predation events on the lek, and to see one so early in the season, and by such an unexpected predator, was pretty mindblowing.

The gyrfalcon came back the next day and James and Sam were able to get some more diagnostic images from a zoomed in video. Unfortunately it hasn’t been back since then, and I haven’t gotten to see it yet. Maybe I shouldn’t say unfortunately, since this bird seems pretty capable of reducing our sample size in a rapid manner!

Jen and her technician Brecken dissected the unlucky male grouse to see what it had been eating (all sage, in spite of the presence of some forbs and insects during the warmer days). I’ll probably have more about that in a subsequent post.

Pygmy Rabbit tracks (top), and Cottontail (bottom). Photo Gail Patricelli

Second: another wildlife sighting. Jen and Gail were at Monument Lek and noticed the burrow and tracks of Pygmy Rabbit! This is another sage-specialist that Jen studies, so she knew what to look for. In some places this is a threatened species. I’m not aware of it’s status in our neck of the woods, but neither Stan nor Sue our agency contacts were aware this species resided in the Hudson area so we will count this as a cool discovery.

Last was something exciting but not quite as fun. I tried to take the crew and Jen’s crew down to the Monument Rocks for a quick but fun excursion. There was still some snow on the road, but not enough to be a problem. Or so we thought. Maybe a half-mile past the lek, the snow covered up what turned out a treacherous mudhole. Trying to power through it only succeeded in me getting astoundingly high-centered. Day 1 we tried using the ATV to help pull it out, but the truck didn’t budge at all in spite of an hour or two of digging. Next morning, we tried another pick-up, but still no budging. It wasn’t until we’d deployed two jacks and dug almost completely under it, and then used the truck, that we finally got it out of there. Definitely not how we wanted to spend two days.

It took quite some feats of engineering to get the truck out.