Chasing the dawn chorus

The dawn chorus is a wonderful, natural phenomenon in which many birds do most of their singing at or before the first light of day.  It is most obvious during the spring, as birds set up territories and go about attracting mates.  In southern Arizona, the resident birds begin singing in February, and many are already sitting on eggs or fledging young by the time the migrants arrive.  The migrants arrive at different times, so every dawn chorus is slightly different.  As the season progresses, some birds reduce their singing to take care of nesting chores, and eventually the migrants move on.  By mid-summer, only a few resident birds greet the dawn.  Carefully listening to the dawn chorus, then, gives us a way to mark the season.

The dawn chorus is a favorite recording subject for nature sound recordists, myself included.  Recently, I had the opportunity to record some dawn choruses with Lang Elliott, who migrated west from his home in New York State to spend 6 months recording “out west.”  Lang has spent decades recording songs of birds, insects, and amphibians, and has published many books and cds of their calls.  You can learn more about his trip and hear some of his recordings here.

Our first stop, in late March, was Organ Pipe National Monument in southwestern Arizona.  We stayed at a lovely little campground away from the more heavily trafficked areas of the park.  It was also far enough from the border that we saw and heard little of border patrol.  It was already a little late for some of the birds (like curve-billed thrasher) while other birds, like white-winged doves, were just arriving.  But there were plenty of birds singing their hearts out, so even with a little more wind than we would have liked, we had a great time recording the dawn choruses.

Lang and I have different styles of recording, which reflect different goals.  I try to record an overall soundscape, and capture whatever is there.  Lang is interested in sound “portraits” of individual species, within their natural soundscape.  My approach is more passive, while Lang’s is more active.  I set my mics up, and wait to see what comes close enough to record.  Lang will often take his mics to the species he wants to record, although sometimes he will also leave a mic out in a distant area overnight, to passively record what is there.  He often left his tent before 4 am to be in position for the earliest singers, while I was snug in my camper listening to the mics placed 30 feet away.  It was a real treat to watch how a very experienced recordist used his recording equipment, and afterwards, how he processed the recordings.

It was quite breezy while we were at Organ Pipe, and we even had a brief thunderstorm roll through one night.  But most of the evenings were bright and star-filled, with elf, western screech, and great horned owls calling in the distance.

Night skies at Organ Pipe National Monument
Night skies at Organ Pipe National Monument.

The dawn choruses were lovely, filled with cactus wrens, doves, mockingbirds, ash-throated flycatchers, Gambel’s quail,  phainopeplas, Gila woodpeckers, and cardinals.  There were also a couple of species  I seldom hear at my house in southeastern Arizona – black-throated sparrows and meadowlark-like Scott’s orioles.  Here’s a short segment of the dawn chorus recorded on our final day in Organ Pipe, after the wind finally died down.  It’s dominated by Gambel’s quail and a mockingbird.  The mockingbird pulled off respectable imitations of both curve-billed thrashers and ash-throated flycatcher.  After a while editing the recording, I started wondering if it was just one mockingbird and one Gambel’s quail making all of the noise.

I have searched for years trying to find a place in the Sonoran Desert that wasn’t overloaded with military overflights and ATV traffic.  We suffered only an occasional aircraft and a distant highway rumble, but it was by far the quietest patch of Sonoran Desert I’ve found.  Recording in the desert is quite challenging, because sound travels so far.

A cactus wren sings from a saguaro, above it's nest, seen just below the arms.
A cactus wren sings from a saguaro. It’s nest is the hole seen just below the arms.

For more about the dawn chorus, see:

The dynamic dawn chorus

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