Listening to the dawn - Sierra Valley, California

Listening to the temporal nature of sound

The sounds around us provide us with clues of the time of day and the season of the year.  As sound expert Julian Treasure states repeatedly in his podcast series, Sound Affects!, without time, there could be no sound, only silence.   Sound is one of our best measures of the passage of time.

As I’ve learned to listen, I’ve become more acutely aware of how sounds change with the time of day and the season of the year.  Most of the sounds that draw my attention are the calls of birds and insects; each have their own diurnal and annual rhythms.   Both call to attract mates and defend territories, so much of their calling is during their breeding seasons.  Each species also has its favorite time of day to call – most birds call around dawn and dusk, when the nighttime inversions help spread their calls over longer distances.  Some birds, like poorwills, nighthawks, and owls, call at night.  Some insects prefer to call in the heat of the day (cicadas, grasshoppers), while some prefer the nighttime (crickets, katydids).

As I’ve learned to listen, I’ve begun to interact with my environment in a new, more intense way.  I’m much more aware of the animals around me, not only who is calling but whether they are giving alarm calls, territorial calls, or are chicks begging their parents to stuff a bug down their throats.  By listening to the dawn chorus each morning, I’ve become aware not only when the local birds start singing more fervently, but when the migrants show up to start setting up their breeding territories.  I’ve became aware how sensitive the desert cicadas are to temperature, as after a relatively cool spring, they didn’t start calling until almost a full month later than they did last year (which was much hotter).

Seven hundred miles north of my home in the desert, the sounds and rhythms are different.  The characters calling are different, and shorter seasons change the seasonal aspects of the sounds.  Just over a month ago, as I was traveling north, I stopped for the night near the Grand Canyon.  I found a nice remote spot in the aspen, pine, and fir forests to set up camp.  The highway from Jacob’s Lake to the north rim could be heard in the distance, but traffic started to taper off as night approached.  After dinner, I set up the recorder in camp to capture the evening chorus, while the dog and I took a lovely walk through the forest.  It was peak season for the birds, and even though the air was smoky from several wildfires in the area (plus one controlled burn nearby), and there was a steady breeze through the trees, the evening chorus was rich and vibrant, as American Robins, Hermit Thrushes, nuthatches, chickadees, and other birds belted out their love songs.

When I arrived in northern Nevada, the dawn chorus of the House Finches, House Sparrows, and doves greeted the first light.  Fifteen minutes later, they were drowned out by the sound of traffic from the nearby highway and streets, as people headed off to work.  Now, a few weeks later, the dawn chorus has petered out to only an occasional twitter, but the traffic remains the same.  On my daily hike with Shadow this morning, the quiet (other than the baseline roar of vehicles and light aircraft) was noticeable.  The Northern Mockingbirds, Black-throated Sparrows, Canyon Wrens, and House Finches that accompanied us on earlier our walks have gone almost silent.  Breeding season is over, the chicks have fledged.  Many of the birds have started to head south for the winter; others are going through their molts and storing energy for the winter.  Meanwhile, the nighttime cricket chorus is becoming richer and louder every evening.

Although electricity and other modern conveniences have removed much of the seasonal aspects of the year (most people work a fixed schedule throughout the year), we still experience the passage of time by the circadian changes in day length.  I think we tend to be less sensitive to the daily and seasonal changes in sounds, but I would encourage my readers to start listening and noting (or even recording) those changes.   In addition to learning more about your wild neighbors, it may enrich your connection to the environment around you.

What sounds tell you the seasons are changing?

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