Sounds of the prairie

A windy morning on the Montana prairie. Photo by Jeff Rice.
A windy morning on the Montana prairie. Photo by Jeff Rice.
A windy morning on the Montana prairie. Photo by Jeff Rice.

The library’s Acoustic Atlas just returned from an incredible recording trip to the American Prairie Reserve in north-central Montana.

If you haven’t heard of the American Prairie Reserve, it is part of an ambitious effort to preserve a huge portion of Montana’s vanishing grasslands. All told, its organizers hope to stitch together about three million acres of prime prairie habitat. If successful, they will create the largest nature reserve in the continental United States — plenty of space for these coyotes (see recording below) calling under the stars last Sunday at about 2:00 AM.


Sounds for new film at Sundance

Outside the Redstone Theater in Park City
Walking Out promotional still
Walking Out promotional still

If you had a chance to see the movie Walking Out at the Sundance Film Festival last week, you would have 1. been pretty lucky (the tickets were sold out far in advance), and 2. heard an incredibly rich mix of audio recordings from Montana’s backcountry. We’re proud to say that the library’s Acoustic Atlas contributed many of those recordings to the film.

Walking Out was shot mostly outdoors near Montana’s Crazy Mountains, and the filmmakers wanted the right sounds to match their epic cinematography. They knew that by coming to us, they would not only get great sounds, but also recordings of the actual places and species in their movie.

The movie adapts David Quammen’s short story of the same name and is written and directed by Montana filmmakers Alex and Andrew Smith. It’s the story of a father and son hunting trip that turns into a struggle for survival. Variety called it a “lyrical and moving exploration of both the Montana backwoods and the human soul.”

I was able to visit Park City for a showing of the movie, and it was a thrill to see it all come together in the theater. Even though the movie is a work of fiction, those elk bugles and bird calls weren’t recorded on a Hollywood sound stage. The sounds are as real as it gets.

Keep an eye out for the movie later this year. Want to hear some of the sounds? Visit

Outside the Redstone Theater in Park City
Outside the Redstone Theater in Park City

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.   

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;

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.


Do wolf howls change with the seasons?

A wolf from Yellowstone's Druid Pack mid-howl (Photo: NPS Photo)
A wolf from Yellowstone’s Druid Pack mid-howl (Photo: NPS Photo)

Recently, the Acoustic Atlas entered into a new partnership with the National Park Service and its publication Yellowstone Science. Over the next two years, radio reporter and science editor Jennifer Jerrett will be producing a podcast series featuring new scientific research in the park. These podcasts will be jointly featured by the Park Service and the Acoustic Atlas, along with many of Jerrett’s Yellowstone field recordings.

Look for these fascinating stories and sounds in the coming months. Meanwhile, take a listen to Jerrett’s story this week for the national radio program Living on Earth. It features researchers Doug Smith and John Theberge, who are investigating how wolf howls may change with the seasons. “People come from all over the world to see and hear wild wolves in Yellowstone,” reports Jerrett. “And this latest research into wolf ecology, communication, and behavior, offers an opportunity to move further, beyond seeing and hearing, to take another tiny step closer toward understanding the mind of the wolf.”

Listen to the full story on PRI’s Living on Earth.

The hawk

Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk, courtesy of USFWS; photographer: Keenan Adams
Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk, courtesy of USFWS;
photographer: Keenan Adams

You might notice that many of the sounds on the library’s Acoustic Atlas are credited to Kevin Colver. Kevin is one of the pre-eminent wildlife recordists in the United States. He is co-author of the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs: Western Region and has captured the calls of just about every bird known to occur in the West. He is also responsible for one of the most famous animal sound recordings ever made. Continue reading “The hawk”