Zumwalt Prairie Soundscape

The Zumwalt Praire stretches over 300,000 acres in Northeastern Oregon. It is composed of native grasses and is home to many plants and animals. The Nature Conservancy has a large preserve there and is working with local ranchers to explore sustainable practices. Preserving these private lands is important for the conservation of native species.

A haunting, tremulous sound came from the sky above. A few white clouds dotted the blue, and that hu-hu-hu kept coming from right overhead, slowly circling, but I could see nothing. I’d just finished pitching my tent on the Nature Conservancy’s Zumwalt Prairie Reserve. I’d come for a writing workshop hosted by Fishtrap in Enterprise Oregon. The winnowing began again, but still no bird visible. It was a Wilson’s Snipe, and I knew it’d be circling, spreading its outer tail feathers. That sound comes from how the wind passes through those feathers while the bird descends a little. They use this call to court the opposite sex and to define a territory. I’d expected birds here this week but not a Wilson’s Snipe. There must be more wet areas than I expected along Camp Creek. No human-made sounds filled this remote landscape. This was the wilds and our home for the week.

The hills roll and twist, mostly are covered with grasses. Some north-facing slopes have conifers growing where the moisture stays longer and the valleys have willows and sometimes Ponderosa pines.

The Zumwalt Prairie is the largest remaining fragment of a native prairie known as the Palouse Grasslands. Now, 99% of the Palouse is gone. But, here, this chunk in Northeastern Oregon still has over 300,000 acres. Native grasses, such as Agropyron spicatumFestuca idahoensis, and Elymus condensatus, cover these hills and sway in the light breeze. This prairie would be our setting for the next week, our laboratory for writing. Each morning, we’d walk some of these rolling hills, looking for wildflowers, birds and studying geology.            

Grassland birds dominated the avifauna. Along Camp Creek, the Nature Conservancy has fenced-off sections to allow regrowth of the riparian habitat. Willows, marsh grasses, and little wetlands border this small creek, and trout spawn in it. The snipe must find sufficient wet areas to stick its long bill down into the muck to find worms. The birds and the night sounds provided the musical background for our workshop and writing endeavors.

Camp Creek has carved a valley through the prairie and along the stream grows willows and other wetland plants.

The following are nineteen sound recordings done during the week. They cover the gamut from coyotes howling at night, to the early morning chorus of birds, to individual bird species, as well as the rasping of crickets.  The first listing is for a playlist with all 20 tracks, and it should play continuously like an album. I’ve then listed each recording separately so you can find a particular species. Of course, if you listen with headsets, the stereo sounds come through better.

A few of the bird species that live on the Zumwalt Prairie. Going clockwise from the upper left: Wilson’s Snipe, Western Meadowlark, Barn Swallow, Song Sparrow, Willow Flycatcher, and House Wren.

The following are the individual tracks.

You can listen to them one at a time.

Coyotes Howl During the Night – It begins with one, and then the pack tunes up, too.
Barn and Cliff Swallows nest on the sides of the buildings on the Zumwalt Prairie. They were actively tending those nests, coming and going all the time. Two pairs of House Wrens had taken up residents and the males often sat in the open singing their hearts out. In the background, Western Meadowlarks call. This prairie is an active cattle ranch and you can hear them, too.
The main gate into the compound provides the perfect place to absorb the morning and the fresh air of the prairie. A willow Flycatcher gives its fitz-beu call and a Western Meadowlark sings its melodic tune. Brewer’s Blackbirds scolded that someone had disturbed their peaceful place. Black-billed Magpies call in the background as a small flock moves through the valley.
House Wren
House Wren, Western Meadowlark & Brewer’s Blackbird
Song Sparrow, Willow Flycatcher, and Yellow Warbler
Willow flycatcher with a Yellow Warbler and a Western Meadowlark in the background. Hear all the flies in this recording, too.
Wilson’s Snipe and an American Robin giving its scold note.
Song Sparrow and a Willow Flycatcher early in the day.
Western Meadowlark and Yellow Warbler
Willow Flycatcher, Wilson’s Snipe, Yellow Warbler, and Song Sparrow.
Song Sparrow and Western Meadowlark
Song Sparrow
Willow Flycatcher
Yellow Warbler
Western Meadowlark
Crickets with a Wilson’s Snipe, Willow Flycatcher, and Song Sparrow in accompaniment.
A Coyote opens up and is joined by its pack mates in a nighttime chorus.

Yellow-throated Longclaw: A bird of the East African plains.

Macronyx croceus live in subsaharan Africa and occur in grasslands and dry savannas.
The plumage on this Yellow-throated Longclaw is remarkably similar to the colors and patterns on an Eastern Meadowlark even though they are not closely related. The Longclaw lives in Africa while the Meadowlark lives in North America.

 A bird flitted out of the long grass and landed at eye level in a dark-green bush. It glared right at me as I leaned out of the Landcruiser’s roof opening. Here was the meadowlark “look-a-like” that I’d ogled at repeatedly in the East African bird book. This individual had a black-V across its yellow throat, chest, and belly, just like the Eastern Meadowlarks that we had on our Pennsylvania farm. Its back was also striped tan-brown, perfect for blending into dry grass. But this African bird, a Yellow-throated Longclaw, was no relation to the North American bird of my youth.

Yellow-throated Longclaw looks to its left, showing the yellow throat and black V on its chest.
The brown iris is emphasized by the markings around the eye. The dark flecking on the plumage gives this African bird a distinguished look and helps it blend into its grassland home.

It was only 8:30 AM on my first day in Kenya, and I yelled to our driver and guide, “Fantastic, what a great bird!” I first saw a photograph of this species decades ago when I was in graduate school. We were looking for examples of convergent evolution while also studying birds of the world. Longclaws are in the avian family Motacillidae, which includes the wagtails and pipits, too. Motacillids are primarily an Eastern Hemisphere group. Two pipit species do occur in North America, and two wagtails sneak across the Bering Straits into Western Alaska. The Old World, however, has lots, including eight longclaw species. The Eastern Meadowlark, though, is part of the Western Hemisphere family Icteridae, the blackbirds and orioles. 

Longclaws and meadowlarks live in similar habitats; grasslands and wet savannas. They nest low among the grasses and forage for insects, spiders, and invertebrates. Natural selection has encouraged the development of their plumage pattern. Their brown-striped backs help them disappear in the waving stems. The yellow front with the black-V probably also blends well and may also be important for courtship. The sexes though are similarly patterned. Males of both species have beautiful songs that carry across the landscape, declaring their ownership of a small section.

The longclaw gets its name from the length of their toenails. The entire front digits on this bird seemed longer than what I remembered for a meadowlark. The hind claw is even lengthier still, and I wished this individual would turn around. Instead, it just twisted its head back and forth, making sure it kept one eye on me. 

The yellow-throated Longclaw is a bird of subsaharan Africa and occurs in grasslands and dry savanna habitats.
The Yellow-throated Longclaw shifted its head to the side as if it was ignoring me. This species is found in Subsaharan Africa. It likes grasslands and dry savannas.

Perhaps, I have a stronger subconscious connection to meadowlarks than I’d admitted, and that drew me to want to find a longclaw on this trip. When I was growing up in the 60s, meadowlarks nested in the hayfields and pastures of our farm. Some were around all year, but a definite influx came in the spring. I never discovered a nest of one even though I walked through the long grass looking. I regularly found Red-winged Blackbird nests but not those of this secretive bird. Male meadowlarks would often sing from the tops of trees along the field’s edge, allowing me to watch them as I slowly circled the area on a tractor. We’d wait to begin the haying until after the blackbirds and meadowlarks had fledged their young. 

My sisters still have the farm, and the surrounding farms still have hayfields and pastures. But the meadowlarks are pretty much gone. In my lifetime, their numbers in North America have declined by 89%. It happened slowly, and often people didn’t notice. Scientists think it is related to changing agricultural practices, the loss of family farms, and increased pesticide use. I find it frightening.

Macronyx croceus live south of the Sahara Desert in Africa. They frequent grasslands and dry savannas.
The black V on the yellow front of this Longclaw really stands out. The yellow eyebrow and small ring of white below the eye gives it an elegant look.

It is part of a larger problem. North America has lost one in four birds since 1970 and that amounts to almost 3 billion individuals. Conservationists and scientists are focused on solutions. Protecting habitat and reducing window strikes, cat kills, and pesticide use all will help. We also need to counter this administration’s efforts to roll back environmental protections like the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, and others. Each time I visit my sisters, I walk their farm and the neighbors to see what birds I might find. The occasional meadowlark is a special joy.

According to Birdlife International, populations of Yellow-throated Longclaws seem stable. It occurs in many countries south of the Sahara. This place, Nairobi National Park, protects habitat for this species as well as many others. 

The longclaw seemed a little slimmer than a meadowlark, maybe like a ballerina rather than a gymnast. The yellow eyebrow made its face stand out. The thin black line of feathers from its gape extended down to its black-throat patch and the light flicking of black lines on its crown and across the yellow gave it a distinguished look. It suggested to me an eminent diplomate coming to make her case in front of an international body. I shivered, maybe, it was telling me to increase my efforts to protect birds, don’t give up. The longclaw then turned, dropped down into the grasses, and disappeared.

The bird glared right at me, both eyes focused intensely. Was it telling me that I needed to increase my efforts to protect habitat.
The Yellow-throated Longclaw glared right at me as if it was trying to tell me to get busy and protect habitat.

Purple Grenadier

A male Purple Grenadier picks at seeds in Nairobi National Park. (Thomas Bancroft)

A male Purple Grenadier picks at seeds in Nairobi National Park. (Thomas Bancroft)

A purplish-blue blob zipped across in front of us and landed on a twig. I yelled for our driver to stop. The road had been rough and the going slow in Nairobi National Park, but there was also so much to see. My binoculars found the small bird. It had stretched out, extending its head and neck as far as possible to strip small seeds from a stem. Some whitish seeds were already stuck to the bright red conical bill. The color was astonishing, like nothing I’d ever seen.

Leaning forward, this granadier shows its bright blue tail coverts that add a little grace to his black rectrices. (Thomas Bancroft)

Leaning forward, this grenadier shows its bright blue tail coverts that add a little grace to his black rectrices. (Thomas Bancroft)

A thin blue stripe ran from the base of the bill over the top of the eye, not quite meeting a slightly wider blue one that came from the lower mandible. A thin red ring of feathers circled the eye. In the subdued light at 7 AM, the pupil was wide open, but still, I could see a red iris that matched the feather ring. Its head, nape, and throat were cinnamon and graded into a belly of cinnamon and blue feathers. His back and flight feathers were brownish and covered dark blue tail coverts and the base of the black rectrices.

At only five inches long, this male Purple Grenadier was striking!

He looked much in body shape and size to a small sparrow or finch from North America, yet, I knew that this bird was not closely related to any of the ones in the United States. This grenadier was an Estrildid. A songbird family found in Africa, southern Asia, and Australia. They are often called waxbills because of the shine on their mandibles. I’d seen several species in this family when I traveled to Australia, but it still thrilled me to see this one. I’d gawked at its colors in the field guides as I prepared to come to Kenya. Now, one sat in front of me.

Stretching to the maximum, this Purple Grenadier finds just the right seed to crunch on for breakfast. (Thomas Bancroft)

Stretching to the maximum, this Purple Grenadier finds just the right seed to crunch on for breakfast. (Thomas Bancroft)

The resemblance to our small sparrows is an example of convergent evolution. Different, unrelated groups take on similar size and shape to exploit a similar resource. In this case, tiny seeds. Estrildids are thought to have evolved in India about 20 million years ago and then spread, radiating into additional species in Africa and Australia. Our New World sparrows are an entirely separate group that originated in the Western Hemisphere. At the same time, our finches are part of a northern Palearctic group that had expanded into North America and evolved into additional species. Birds are so fascinating to contemplate.

The grenadier shifted around, showing its other side and then flitted into the grass, disappearing. I stared for a moment at the twig where it had sat before thanking our driver, and we continued our search of these African plains.

Blue feathers dot the chest of this Purple Grenadier, giving it a beautiful look and complements the facial markings. (Thomas Bancroft)

Blue feathers dot the chest of this Purple Grenadier, giving it a beautiful look and complements the facial markings. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Grace of the Trumpeter Swan

(Thomas Bancroft)

A pair of Trumpeter Swans fly overhead on their way to join a larger flock roosting on Fir Island in Skagit County. (Thomas Bancroft)

The low-pitched trumpet came from behind us. Turning, I spotted two large white birds that then flew right over us. Their translucent flight feathers glowed in the early morning sun. Their wingspan, more than 6-foot, created a moving shadow across Fir Island. Long white necks extended in front of solid bodies, and elephantine black legs and feet were tucked tight against their underside. More than 25 pounds each, these Trumpeter Swans flew with grace, style, and dignity.

The pair circled the field a quarter-mile east of our location, then set their wings, dropped their black feet, and landed without a stumble among several hundred swans. A few trumpets and calls drifted toward me from the crowd. Most of these largest of North America’s waterfowl seemed to be resting on the green grass.

The trachea in these birds is more than three feet long, about a half-inch in diameter, and has a volume three to four times what one might expect for a bird this size. The trachea folds back and forth in the chest and creates the resonating chamber for the beautiful call that caught my attention.

(Thomas Bancroft)

Four Trumpeter Swans bank to fly out from a roosting area on Fir Island in Skagit County. (Thomas Bancroft)

In the summer of 1968, I flew with my sister from Pennsylvania to Yellowstone National Park. Finding a Trumpeter Swan was a priority, I wanted to be able to brag to my high school birding buddies about the western birds we discovered, including this rare swan. In the 1800s and early 1900s, hunting decimated Trumpeter Swans populations. They were shot for their skins, flight feathers, and undoubtedly meat.

In 1935, only 69 birds were known to exist, although probably some undiscovered flocks occurred in remote parts of Canada and Alaska. In 2005, a continent-wide survey estimated that the population had grown to more than 34,000, a conservation success. Stopping the hunt and protecting habitat were critical, but also the birds adapted to wintering on agricultural lands, accessing novel food items. In winter, lead poisoning and collisions with power lines are now the major mortality issue.

These birds looked stunning through my spotting scope. Dirty-gray, full-grown cygnets accompanied many pairs. We had seen half a dozen flocks of similar size already that morning. In 1968, my sister and I searched Yellowstone for several days and found only two individuals. They swam on the far side of a small river, and our view was through thick vegetation.

Managers have introduced the species into several eastern states where they now breed. A few even winter in birding spots that I visited in Western Pennsylvania and Ohio as a high school student. Scientists at Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology have analyzed eBird data to provide a much more refined abundance map than are currently available in birding guides or on other websites.

https://ebird.org/science/status-and-trends/truswa/abundance-map

It shows that the Salish Sea and south into Oregon are important wintering areas for our west coast population. These birds then migrate through British Columbia to breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska. The Central Rockies population had expanded substantially from the range in 1968, and birds are found in a band from the northern prairies across the Great Lakes.

A pair and two full-grown gray cygnets began running, head and neck extended while flapping their wings. They quickly became airborne, banking to the left while climbing up over the flock, before turning to fly north away from us.

See: Fink, D., T. Auer, A. Johnston, M. Strimas-Mackey, M. Iliff, and S. Kelling. Ebird Status and Trends. Version: November 2018. https://ebird.org/science/status-and-trends.Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.

A family of Trumpeter Swans rests on a green field.