Night sounds in a desert canyon

Like many nature recordists, I’m a bit obsessed with recording the spring dawn chorus.  It’s dynamic variety, changing by the minute, the day, the season, the habitat, is like candy for the ears.  However, I’m almost as fascinated by the night sounds – the singing insects and amphibians, the owls, the night jars, and the occasional singing oddball like the mockingbird or yellow-breasted chat.

I recently joined nature sound recordist Lang Elliott and his girlfriend, Sioban, for a couple of days of sound recording in Aravaipa Canyon, SE of Phoenix, Arizona.  Aravaipa is an incredible place – lush riparian vegetation beneath colorful, steep rock walls.  A lovely stream flows through the canyon year-round, and it is a critically important tributary to the San Pedro River.  The lush riparian area is home to a huge variety of wildlife.   Most of this biodiversity is protected within a BLM wilderness and adjacent Nature Conservancy preserve.  Access is limited and tightly regulated to protect this unique environment.  Within the canyon are ruins from the Salado people, evidence that previous peoples also sought its waters hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago.

Lush vegetation and steep canyon walls create diverse environments for wildlife.

Lush vegetation and steep canyon walls create diverse environments for wildlife.

We visited Aravaipa in mid-May, camping just outside of the wilderness area in a lovely side canyon.   Birdsong echoed off the canyon walls, and chipmunks chirped alarms when gray hawks flew by.  On my first night in the canyon (Sioban and Lang had been there for a couple of days already), as Sioban and I were chatting and watching the stars come out, a Mexican spotted owl let out its distinctive who-whowho-whoah call, which reverberated impressively down the canyon.   Mexican spotted owls are rare enough to be federally protected, so hearing one is a special treat.  A few crickets called, and a poor-will could be heard in the distance.  I set up my mics near my camper, and recorded a lot of rodent, probably pack rat, activity near the mic.  Most of the other sounds were pretty distant and muffled by a light breeze.

Lang and Sioban left the next day, but I stayed another night.  It was warmer and calmer.  Evening was greeted by an almost deafening roar of several different kinds of crickets, and a cloud of no-see-ums that tried to eat me alive.  I retreated to my CR-V camper, and my DIY window screens got their first real-world test against voracious insects.  They passed the test with flying colors.   Around midnight, the nearby calls of a Mexican spotted owl woke me up, with a chat talking to itself in the background.

Just before dawn, while it was still dark outside, I awoke to hear a strange comedy club of elf owls, poorwills, and a yellow breasted chat giggling and chortling their way into the dawn.

In spite of near-constant jet traffic during the day, the incredible biodiversity of the canyon makes it a wonderful place to listen and record the sounds of nature.  The jet traffic tapers off in the evening (late evening) allowing the wonderful night voices to be heard in all their glory.   Water is life – especially in the desert.

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