Spring comes alive in central North Dakota, near the Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Nature recordist and photographer Lang Elliott gives Living on Earth host Steve Curwood a tour of a cattail marsh and the birds we’re likely to find there.
CURWOOD: It’s daybreak in a cattail marsh near Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge in central North Dakota. This prairie region is teeming with wetlands and bird life on this spring morning and joining me now to get up close and personal with the birds here is nature recordist and photographer Lang Elliott. Lang, sounds like a bird symphony here!
The marsh wren is a common bird of the cattail marsh. (Photo: copyright Lang Elliott/NatureSound Studio)
ELLIOTT: Holy smoke, it is. It's just an amazing chorus you get there at dawn in the prairie marshes. There's nothing else like it.
CURWOOD: What's this area look like?
ELLIOTT: Well, it's a hilly upland region, awash with all these depressions or pothole ponds that were formed during the Wisconsian glaciation. And, all these wetland marshes of cattails and rushes--just chock full of wildlife.
CURWOOD: I hear a noise that kind of sounds like a sump pump noise. Who makes that sound?
ELLIOTT: Yeah. That's the sound of the American bittern. It's a heron-like marsh bird that's brown with a streaked breast and very camouflaged; lives among the cattails. The male inflates his throat before he calls to create a resonant chamber and makes that sound, sort of a pumper lunk, pumper lunk, pumper lunk.
[PUMPER LUNK, GULPING SOUND OF BITTERN]
CURWOOD: How did you get so close to record this bittern?
ELLIOTT: Well, my first morning at the marsh I could hear them out there. There was more than one and I wanted to get a really nice recording, but if you try to approach one in the daylight they see you and, of course, they hunker down in the cattails and they grow quiet or they slink away or fly away.
So, what I did is come evening, I could hear one way out in the marsh and I thought, 'well I'm going to canoe out there and set up a microphone and then come back at dawn and record.' But he was so far out I was afraid I'd get lost in the dark, so I put a little blinking red light on my van which was parked next to the lake and I canoed out in the marsh. It took me about 30 minutes or 40 minutes to hone in on this bittern that was calling occasionally. And I set the microphone on a tripod in shallow water next to this patch of cattails where the bittern took up residence for the night. And I strung a bunch of cable back to a platform they had built for goose nesting, a goose nest platform, tied the cable off and put a blinking red light there. And, then I looked back over the marsh and I could see where my van was so I canoed back to my van and slept for maybe four or five hours, got up four in the morning. I could see that blinking light way out in the marsh, so I canoed way back out to that spot and when it started getting light, he really started pumping and I got this fabulous recording. I don't think I could do any better.
[PUMPING SOUND OF BITTERN]
CURWOOD: Now, what other birds are common out there among the cattails there?
ELLIOTT: Oh, there's quite a variety and a lot of them make really interesting sounds. There are little chicken-like birds called "rails." The Virginia rail is out there in the marshes and even more common is a small rail called the Sora, which has a fabulous whinny-like outburst, sort of a laugh-like outburst.
[WHINNY, OUTBURST CHIRPS FROM A SORA]
ELLIOTT: Other species, of course, you have the redwing blackbird and there can be quite a lot of sound coming out of both males and the females. Yellow-headed blackbirds have sort of other worldly sounds and they're quite common in some cattail marshes.
[YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRDS CACKLE]
ELLIOTT: And, there's a number of shorebirds in the marsh. There's killdeer, a type of plover; there's lesser yellow legs, they are quite noisy. Semi-palmated sandpipers; American avocets, which are really elegant and beautiful and make a lot of sound. Common snipe which flies overhead and makes a really peculiar sound with its wings. And then there's the willet who's quite a noisy creature and willets are fairly large shorebirds and they fly overhead, flying over the marsh going "peewee willet, peewee willet, peewee willet."
[SOUNDS OF WILLET CALL]
CURWOOD: Peewee willet, peewee willet. What will it do? What is the question it's asking here?
ELLIOTT: Well, I don't know. I mean, the question is, will it or won't it? And, exactly what it might do, I'm not too sure. But, I hope that it does do whatever it will do.
CURWOOD: I hear that this area has long been the largest nesting colony of white pelicans on the continent and that there's some 30,000 white pelicans that usually call the Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge home. Is that right?
ELLIOTT: Yes, actually….well, the recordings that we've been playing come from just north of Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge in a waterfowl production area. The refuge itself is fenced in and there's a large lake with an island out in the middle that has the largest colony in North America, breeding white pelicans. And, the numbers have risen to nearly 30,000, but last year, for some unexplained reason, in late May, they began abandoning their nests and over a period of just a few days the majority of these birds just flew away, up and flew away.
CURWOOD: Leaving their eggs or their chicks behind?
ELLIOTT: Leaving the eggs, leaving young that had already hatched, all of which perished. Nobody knows why this happened in the history of the refuge, which was established in 1908 by President Teddy Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt. They've never abandoned their nests so it's a real mystery and got a lot of people concerned. I'm told that the pelicans are now arriving again this year. There's 500 to a thousand that have appeared and everyone hopes that they will nest successfully this year and it will not be a repeat performance.
CURWOOD: Lang, thanks for taking this time with me, today.
ELLIOTT: Thank you, Steve.
CURWOOD: Lang Elliott travels far and wide to record the natural world. His most recent book, which includes photos and a CD, is “Music of the Birds,” published by Houghton Mifflin. To hear more sounds of birds of the North Dakota prairie region, go to our web site, living on earth dot org.
[BIRDS CHIRPING AND CALLING]
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