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.

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