Night falls on the Carson River

I love the transition in sounds as day fades into dusk and then evening, especially in late summer when the chorus of crickets and tree crickets creates a repetitious and soothing melody.  I find recording at this time of day challenging, though, as man-made sounds, particularly vehicle traffic, are still quite loud.  The early evening inversion helps spread the traffic noise, making it seem even louder.

I went out to the Carson River to record nighttime sounds a couple of times in late August and early September.  At least three species of crickets and tree crickets were calling loudly.  I managed to find a nice spot on a bank above the river to set up the microphones.  The river is hardly flowing anymore; a victim of the drought and upstream agriculture, it’s now a continuous series of large pools.  The banks, normally scoured by spring snowmelt, are lush with baby cottonwoods and willows.  Below my mics, the river formed a large pond, blocked not by a beaver dam, but by a debris flow from a flood last fall.

The first evening I went out to the river, I set up the mics, and retreated to my car to avoid a hungry horde of mosquitoes.  I monitored the sounds by running a long cable from the mics to the recorder inside the car and listened through headphones.  In addition to the calling insects, I could hear bullfrogs splashing around in the water below, as well as something larger.  A slap of a beaver’s tail was my clue as to what was making the noise.  Part way into the recording, a coyote gave an alarm, and was answered by distant coyotes.

The second time I went out, the mosquitoes weren’t so bad, so I returned to the same spot, and watched a beaver swim up to the bank and start chewing on vegetation.  I set up the mics in a parabolic dish to see if I could get some sounds of beaver conversations.   Other than chewing and splashing (from at least two beavers), most of the sounds came from the insects and birds flying over.

Partway into the recording, about the time it was pitch black and too dark to see, I could hear the sound of something large breathing loudly.  I pulled off my headphones to try to localize the sound, as the parabolic dish makes that difficult.  It appeared to be coming from the water in front of me.  Soon a beaver started crying.  I’m pretty sure what I recorded was some form of dominance interaction, but I gotta say, not being able to see what was making the noise was pretty creepy (if you can, listen to the following recording with headphones).

The Carson River in this area is pretty heavily impacted.  After it leaves the mountains, it flows through more than 20 miles of agricultural lands, including alfalfa fields, cattle pastures, and some croplands.  So by the time it gets to the somewhat protected areas near Carson City, it is already carrying extra fertilizers and pesticides from upstream.  Most of the river area is protected by city and BLM parks, but the parks receive a lot of use, from people walking their dogs, fishing, bird watching, jogging, etc.  It’s also used for partying,target shooting, and off-road use, and the vehicle damage to the riverbanks and discarded trash is becoming more and more apparent.  Old tires, plastic bottles, and other trash float among the duckweed.

Although deer still use the area, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the tracks of mountain lion, bobcat, mink, or even wild horses along the river.   Tracks of skunks and raccoons are harder to find than they used to be.  This lovely corridor of cottonwoods and willows still provides critical habitat for birds, beavers, and muskrats, but it’s currently being overused and disrespected.  It’s in serious need of maintenance, to restore vehicle barriers and clean up the trash.   Riparian areas are critically important in the desert; they are worthy of our respect and protection.

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