Ear Mountain

Ear Mountain near Choteau, Montana. Photo by Jeff Rice.
Ear Mountain near Choteau, Montana. Photo by Jeff Rice.

If ever a place beckoned to a nature recordist, it is Ear Mountain. I had never been there, but saw the name on a map and had to visit.

I happened to be in nearby Choteau, Montana for a project related to the writings of Ivan Doig. This summer, I am tracing some of the locations Doig wrote about in books like This House of Sky and English Creek. The project is supported by the library’s Acoustic Atlas, and over the past month it has taken me from White Sulphur Springs to the Rocky Mountain Front, with a few detours to the northernmost part of western Washington.

Doig, who passed away in 2015, was a leading writer of Western literature. He wrote 16 books of fiction and non-fiction, many of them set in his native Montana. The MSU library is now digitizing and archiving his papers, and even if you don’t know Ivan Doig, you will recognize the country he wrote about.

What draws me personally to Doig’s books is not just his ear for plot and dialogue, but his sense of place. He wrote about what might be described as ‘Doig country’—the windy prairies and forests of central and northern Montana as experienced by its ranchers and early settlers. That’s what I will be documenting through sound, and I’ll blog more about this project as the summer progresses. I’ll follow some of Doig’s characters around the West, and I will use this space as a kind of notebook to share sounds and stories from these trips.

My first stop in this series is the valley below the aforementioned rock near Choteau. It turns out that Ear Mountain lives up to its name. It is a draw for songbirds that are attracted to its transitional habitat. It is the ‘front’ part of the famed Rocky Mountain Front, where the mountain connects to the nearby grasslands. The Ear Mountain Wildlife Management Area where I visited is also a big draw for grizzly bears. It is one of the last places in the world where grizzly bears still venture onto the prairie. At dawn on July 5th, I didn’t see any bears, but the wind settled down enough for the birds to go into full song. Listen in this recording for house wrens and and robins. Don’t forget your bear spray.


Exploding trees at 60 below

The coldest temperature ever measured in the lower 48 states was at Rogers Pass in Lewis and Clark County, Montana. The date was January 20, 1954, and the thermometer dropped to minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

While this winter has not reached that extreme, history marks at least a few times when temperatures came close. An account from the Montana Historical Society describes what might, in some ways, be referred to as a cold snap. In it, Raymond Holderman discusses life in Fort Peck during the winter of 1936 when the trees began to explode.

R.H.: We had a sawmill setup there, so we would saw all these big cottonwood trees that… Oh, they were 3, 4, 5 feet in diameter. In fact, they were big trees when Lewis and Clark went through 135 years before—they were big trees already. And they would saw those and stack them all winter long….

One winter we got caught in when we saw the thermometer [at] 60 below zero. That, that was cold. That was cold. 

[Interviewer]: How’d you deal with being that cold?

R.H.: Oh, I’m telling you… We were sawing those trees, and the trees were just like cutting ice. They were frozen. And once in a while one of those things would crack because of the water in the cells of the tree. And when that would let go it sounded like a big army rifle going off right alongside your ear. An ought six, I’d say. Because I had one of those big game rifles, and that sounded just like that one went off. You know, you’d just jump when that thing would pop. You didn’t know what happened for a second. Then you’d know that big old cottonwood there split, and it would have a big split in there. Oh golly, that was cold.   

Acoustic Atlas teams with NPS to gather the sounds of Yellowstone

The Acoustic Atlas Yellowstone collection is now available! The collection includes sounds from our partnership with the National Park Service. Read the full press release below. Yellowstone_collection_screenshot

Date: January 28, 2016
Contact: Sandra Snell-Dobert, (307) 344-2015
Contact: Molly Arrandale, (406) 994-5307
Yellowstone National Park and the Acoustic Atlas at Montana State University Library announced today the launch of the Yellowstone Collection, a curated compilation of field recordings and a developing podcast series highlighting America’s first national park.

Through a cooperative project between the Acoustic Atlas and Yellowstone National Park, the growing audio collection aims to create new ways to experience the animals, landscapes, and people of the area, by offering a freely accessible online archive of natural sounds, interviews, and radio stories focused on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

“We could not be more excited to share the sounds of Yellowstone through our archive,” Kenning Arlitsch, Dean of the Montana State University Library, said. “Montana State University Library launched the Acoustic Atlas because there are relatively few natural sound collections at libraries, and even fewer focusing on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.”The Acoustic Atlas was founded in 2013 and includes recordings from throughout the Western United States. The Yellowstone collection builds on its mission to document the sounds of regional ecosystems.

In addition to expanding the natural sounds collection at MSU, the field recordings will be used as a foundation in creating sound-rich, podcast-style audio pieces that tell the stories of research and issues in Yellowstone National Park. The audio stories, which visitors and followers can listen to online, will highlight the rich, but changing, soundscapes of the area, chronicle some of the research taking place in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and spotlight key voices in the region. Project producer and Yellowstone National Park correspondent Jennifer Jerrett says, “It’s kind of like public radio for Yellowstone National Park. I hope these stories build perspective and advance our conversations about science and the complexities of preservation in Yellowstone.”Jerrett continues, “2016 marks the National Park Service Centennial, so it seems fitting to stop and listen—to really listen—and reflect on the meaning of parks and preservation in America. I’m proud to be working on such an extraordinary project.”

The project is supported in part by Montana State University, the Yellowstone Association, the Yellowstone Park Foundation, and by a generous grant through the Eyes on Yellowstone program. Eyes on Yellowstone is made possible by Canon U.S.A., Inc. This program represents the largest corporate donation for wildlife conservation in the park. Audio from the partnership can be accessed through both the Yellowstone National Park and Acoustic Atlas websites.


Acoustic Atlas Yellowstone collection: http://acousticatlas.org/yellowstone/index.php

National Park Service: http://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/photosmultimedia/soundlibrary.htm

Press release: http://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/news/ia1.htm



Audio postcard: smokey bears

Photographer: Luca Galuzzi (Lucag), http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Lucag Provider: Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/
Bison roaming the National Bison Range. Photo by Jeff Rice.
Bison roaming the National Bison Range. Photo by Jeff Rice.

Occasionally, we take you behind the scenes of an interesting recording. Recently, Acoustic Atlas Program Director Jeff Rice captured the unusual sound of a black bear at the National Bison Range in western Montana. Read on and then take a listen.

The place: The National Bison Range was created in 1908 by Teddy Roosevelt as habitat for the nation’s endangered bison population. As many as 30 to 60 million bison once roamed the Western United States, but by the late 1880s, a relentless campaign of hunting and outright slaughter had destroyed almost all of them. At one point, as few as 100 individuals were thought to remain in the wild. By Roosevelt’s day, recovery efforts had started to take hold, and the National Bison Range was the first time that Congress had appropriated money to buy land aimed at wildlife conservation. It marked one of the earliest successes of the National Wildlife Refuge system.

Today, bison in the West number in the hundreds of thousands, mostly on private ranches. They remain an important fixture on the refuge, along with pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, and imposing herds of elk and deer—habitat for bison means more habitat for other species too, which makes the range a great place for nature recording.

The recording: This was the second year that I have visited the National Bison Range, but I wasn’t sure what to expect. Wildfires and an oppressive drought have been affecting much of the West, and in late August, the range (like much of Montana, it seemed) was hazy with smoke. The place was strangely quiet under this grey shroud, devoid of many of the usual choruses of birds and insects.

Pronghorn antelope graze at the National Bison Range against a backdrop of hazy smoke from nearby forest fires. Photo by Jeff Rice.
Pronghorn antelope graze at the National Bison Range against a backdrop of smoke from nearby forest fires. Photo by Jeff Rice.

At the same time, some of the larger animals were more present than I had remembered. Bison were common as you might expect, but I also noticed that several black bears were out feeding on berries in one of the lower valleys. (For that and other reasons, visitors are not allowed to stray from their cars along some of the travel routes. I received special permission from the Refuge to make recordings.)

Late in the day, I set up to record in a clearing just off the road. It was not far from where I had seen the bears, so I kept the car running and worked fast. As I stashed the microphones behind some bushes, I couldn’t help but think of the Forest Service’s ursine mascot, Smokey. The smell of smoke on the range was constant. My eyes burned. I wondered about the animals—and the people—that have been living with these conditions for weeks. There was talk of rain, but it hadn’t come yet and relief was far away. I rubbed my eyes, set the recorder to run all night, and left.

When I returned the next morning, I wasn’t sure if I had had any luck, but I packed up the equipment and made the long trek back home. Back at the studio, I scanned through the hours of tape. The chirring of crickets dominated most of the soundscape, but just as the sun was starting to rise—the timer indicated that it was at about 6 AM in the recording—I saw a spike in the digital waveform indicating that something new had happened. I leaned in and listened. There it was: the unmistakeable sound of a black bear.

These particular sounds are referred to as “tongue clicks” and biologist Lynn Rogers, founder of the North American Bear Center, tells me they may represent a bear communicating with its cubs. Black bears will sometimes grunt and click earnestly when they are concerned or nervous for their cubs, or sometimes when they are just feeling social. I had seen two bear cubs playing and eating about 100 yards from where I recorded, so this seemed like a good likelihood. It’s also quite possible that they were curious about my microphone. It occurred to me that I had set up my recording equipment in the equivalent of their living room. That might cause anyone to comment.

Listen to more bear recordings on the Acoustic Atlas at acousticatlas.org. 

The sound of fire

The Yellowstone Fire of 1988. Photo courtesy of the National Interagency Fire Center .
The Yellowstone Fire of 1988. Photo courtesy of the National Interagency Fire Center .
The Canyon Creek Fire in Yellowstone. Photo courtesy of the National Interagency Fire Center.

Bobbie Scopa worked the Yellowstone fire of 1988. The smoke was so thick that it had created its own weather—an inversion that locked the forest into a dense cloud of soot. “In the middle of the day we had to have our headlamps on just to read our maps,” she recalled years later. Visibility was down to 30 or 40 feet and the fire itself was hidden. All she had to go on was the sound.

There would be dead calm as the fire choked on its own smoke at times, and then it would come to life with fresh oxygen. Scopa, now a Deputy Regional Fire Director with the Bureau of Land Management, told me the story several years ago, and this summer’s intense fire season prompted me to revisit our conversation. She had talked vividly about what she heard on that day. Continue reading “The sound of fire”

The sound of summer in Montana

Sunset on the Flying D Ranch in southern Montana. Photo by Jeff Rice.
Sunset on the Flying D Ranch in southern Montana. Photo by Jeff Rice.

It was a pleasure to record this month at the Flying D Ranch outside of Bozeman. The 116,000 acre ranch sits on the edge of Big Sky in the Yellowstone corridor and is famously owned by billionaire conservationist and media mogul Ted Turner. This working ranch is known for its thousands of free range bison, but it also shares the land with wolves and grizzlies and countless other wildlife. Continue reading “The sound of summer in Montana”

Rhinoceros auklets on Living on Earth

Examining an auklet chick near artificial burrow (Photo: Jeff Rice)
Examining an auklet chick near artificial burrow (Photo: Jeff Rice)

Several of our rhinoceros auklet recordings are featured this week on the national radio program Living on Earth. Listen to the show’s Earth Ear segment to hear the sounds of these puffin-related birds nesting on Protection Island in Washington state. Rhinoceros auklets spend their days in the coastal waters there, but at night they return to their burrows, mouths full of fish for their chicks.

Hear the sounds at Living on Earth.

World Listening Day features H20

There is a saying that you never miss the water till the well runs dry. That has resonated throughout California and other drought-stricken parts of the country this year.

Water is the theme of this year’s World Listening Day on July 18th. The annual celebration of sound and soundscapes is raising awareness of the global water crisis by inviting people to reflect upon our increasingly complex relationship with H20. Scientists say climate change will mean more severe droughts in many parts of the world, and that this year’s extreme conditions are a preview of what may become the new normal.

Here, the sound of water is the sound of a changing West. Spanish Creek in southern Montana is the lifeblood of a wide and open valley near Big Sky, and this July 2015 recording is our World Listening Day contribution.


Notes from the field: listening to sea otters

A friendly sea otter at the Seattle Aquarium. Photo by Jeff Rice.
A friendly sea otter at the Seattle Aquarium. Photo by Jeff Rice.

Scientists say that mammals have the most complex and varied vocalizations in the animal kingdom. Yet, other than the ubiquitous babel of humans, there are just not a lot mammal recordings out there. At least compared to most other vertebrate species. We hear bird calls every day, but when was the last time you heard a meadow vole, or a trowbridge shrew? Or a sea otter for that matter?

Recently, I found myself at the Seattle Aquarium where a young sea otter named Mishka was calling for her breakfast. If you are like me, you may not have heard a sea otter before. This is partly because the animals themselves are rare—they are listed as endangered in California and Southwest Alaska—and they aren’t known to make a lot of sounds to begin with.

Aquarium curator of birds and mammals Traci Belting told me that sea otters are typically very quiet: “If you were to find an entire raft of otters, you could be watching them for an hour and never hear a sound. There could be a hundred animals in the group and you’ll never hear anything.” When they do vocalize, she says, it is usually between individual otters and may include grumbles and growls, and intermittent sneezes. Pups are less shy. You can hear Mishka’s occasional calls at the aquarium until she grows out of the habit and becomes a much more taciturn adult. Take a listen to what are referred to as sea otter “pup screams.” 

Special thanks to the Seattle Aquarium for allowing me to visit the aquarium to record their sea otters. These audio recordings are available for use under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License; http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/.

Montana Field Guide features library’s mammal recordings

Screenshot of the state's Montana Field Guide
Screenshot of the state’s Montana Field Guide

Many of the library’s mammal recordings are now available as part of the state’s Montana Field Guide. The guide is a collaboration between the Montana Natural Heritage Program and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The website features more than two dozen audio samples from our collection, including rare recordings of the American Beaver and the Mountain Goat.

Browse our entire mammal collection on the Acoustic Atlas.