I have a slightly unusual post to share today. In April, I attended an acoustic ecology workshop. It had nothing to do with big cats, but it was enlightening nonetheless. As such, I have decided to write about it.
Acoustic ecology is all about sound. More specifically, it is about how the noises in an environment influence the behavior of the animals in it. The purpose of the workshop was to learn how to collect data for this fascinating science.
The workshop attendees and I met outside the Wildlife Building at Humboldt State University (HSU). There were two other people there besides myself: Erin and Alex. They were both students at HSU, and Erin was leading the workshop. She was using acoustic ecology for her senior project, which focuses on the calls of white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys). This species sometimes utilizes higher-pitched vocalizations in urban areas, and Erin was trying to find out why. She was doing this by recording both the sparrows’ songs and the decibel levels of background noise, in order to see if the two factors correlate. The workshop gave Erin a chance to teach Alex and I about her methods.
Following brief introductions, the three of us drove to the Mad River Hatchery in the town of Blue Lake. Upon arrival, I felt as if we were in an ancient landscape. Low, tree-covered mountains bordered us on two sides. The weather at this point was cool and cloudy, adding to the mysterious feel. Erin took a few minutes to explain the equipment she uses, and we were off.
Soon after we started our hike, we came across a group of white-crowned sparrows. Alex recorded their calls, and we set off again. But almost instantly we located a golden-crowned sparrow. This time it was my turn to record. Erin had to show me how to set the device to “record,” but after that it was a simple matter of holding the microphone in the direction of the sparrow. Once I had completed my crash course in microphone operation, we continued on our way.
As we followed the hatchery’s well-kept trails, we allowed ourselves to become distracted by nature. There was a bit of excitement when Erin spotted what may have been an alligator lizard. Alex is quite interested in reptiles, and tried to get a better look at it – but it escaped into the underbrush. We also encountered a set of tracks that were likely left by a skunk, and a large puddle full of tadpoles.
Eventually we approached the banks of the Mad River. The open plain we were on appeared to have been underwater recently, as evidenced by the smooth stones and piles of driftwood we had to climb over. Here Erin heard a kingfisher, and we spent several minutes recording its call. The gentle sound of the river was incredibly relaxing, but soon we returned to our hike.
By this time I was noticing that acoustic ecology was encouraging me to experience the forest in a new way. Normally when I hike I become lost in my head, experiencing reality through the obscured lens of abstract thought. But this workshop was forcing me to focus on the sense of sound. This became apparent when we entered a grove in which many birds were singing. We recorded them, and as we did so the sounds of the forest became more clear to me. The birds’ songs seemed more beautiful than ever, and time felt like it had slowed down. But it had not, and so we resumed our walk.
We soon came to a spot where a hedgerow on our right separated us from an agricultural field. A white-crowned sparrow announced his presence with a song, which became our last recording. We moved on, repeatedly checking under logs for reptiles, and eventually re-entered the conifer forest. All that was left to do now was head home.
Although this workshop was only a brief foray into the world of acoustic ecology, for me it was a valuable exercise. As one of my companions noted, how we experience the world is partly determined by what we are looking for. Focusing on sound took me out of my usual way of relating to the world, and helped me rediscover the richness of nature’s soundscape.