The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 90: Listening to Parks, part 2

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Do you get into the wilderness for the peace and quiet? How do you know it's going to be there?

This week on The WildeBeat; part two of Listening to Parks.

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number ninety, produced with your support and membership donations.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: Last time, in part one, we heard from Kurt Fristrup, a scientist with the Natural Sounds program at the National Park Service in Fort Collins, Colorado.

KURT FRISTRUP: Sound is one of the most evocative aspects of visiting a park. Just imagine watching a movie with the soundtrack removed, and I think you'd get a sense of how much of the emotional impact would be lost. ...Every year we put out ten to twenty sound monitoring devices in national parks, where we record for up to 30 days to get a relatively complete picture of ...the park's soundscape.

STEVE: Monitoring sounds in the parks can be dangerous, at least for the equipment.

KURT FRISTRUP: The next sound you will hear was recorded at Sentinel Dome in Yosemite National Park. Our recording equipment attracted the attention of a bear which attempted to eat the microphone and the plastic covering.

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STEVE: And it's not just large animals.

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KURT FRISTRUP: I very much doubt this hummingbird was looking for nectar because the black foam covering of the microphone doesn't resemble any flower that I've ever seen. Hummingbirds do sometimes forage for spiders and other insects, and so it's possible ...that it was looking for something like that...

STEVE: And of course, all of this equipment has to stand-up to the elements.

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STEVE: In spite of weather, and bear and hummingbird attacks, every year they collect months and months of sound recordings to analyze. It takes patience, and a lot of computer time, to sort out the natural sounds from the noise pollution.

KURT FRISTRUP: Thus far we've monitored about forty three units in the national park system. And we try to monitor both remote backcountry locations, as well as front country sites where large numbers of visitors have access... In wilderness areas in the Sierra network of national parks, aircraft are audible between forty and sixty percent of the time, and they're most audible ...during the hours right around sunrise... The problem here is that those very quiet hours of the morning, are also the period in which most-most bird song and other critical forms of animal communication takes place. Animals focus their calling activity at that point in the day because the listening conditions are so good, ...and as significant increases in noise levels causes us some concern about the long-term impacts on those ecosystems.

STEVE: So you you think ...that unnatural sounds or manmade sounds could have a negative effect on plant life and animal life... that we're trying to preserve in the parks?

KURT FRISTRUP: Well, I'm not actually worried immediately about the effects of noise on plant life, but we do know that there are many studies that do document the effects of noise on wildlife. And those effects take two forms. The first form is animal becomes aware of a noise source, and interrupts whatever it was doing try and perhaps determine what it is and where it is. There is a second class of effects that we're concerned with, which we might call indirect effects or opportunity costs. These indirect effects can have fairly profound impacts in predator /prey systems because many, many animals, many, many predators, use sound to find their prey. And many, many potential prey items use hearing to alert them to the approach of a predator or some other dangerous condition. One fact that demonstrates the importance of sound, is that although there are many species of blind vertebrates that are known, there is not a single deaf species of vertebrate.

STEVE: While the park service is trying to save the parks from unnatural sounds, you could be saving the natural sounds for yourself. Dan Dugan is a noted expert in nature sound recording.

DAN DUGAN: People are -- commonly don't really think about sound and nature except maybe a bird or something like that, but once something clues them in to start listening, you can hear, you know, the richness of the environment and also of course you become aware of how rare natural quiet is, and how much to cherish it when you do find it.

STEVE: You probably bought a digital camera to capture the sights of your wilderness trip. But, you know, for about the same money, you could capture the sounds too.

DAN DUGAN: There's a range in audio the same as there is in photography. For a beginner, you would probably start out using an all-in-one flash-card recorder. There's a bunch of them around. There's the Micro-track, there's the Edirol, there's Sony Hi-M-D recorders. There's quite a selection. The ones I mentioned are all around four hundred dollars or so. Sound recordists generally go out with two things in mind, one is species hunting, which people do for research or for collecting, and the other is to record soundscapes, which is picking up the whole scene. And, you know, finding a place with just a beautiful soundscape and recording that.

STEVE: I assume that each of those two requires different sorts of equipment and techniques.

DAN DUGAN: Well the gear is actually the same except for the microphone, but everything else is the same. It's just basically a recorder and headphones. But the microphones are different for species hunting or for soundscapes. For really serious species hunting, it's kind of like the same as really serious species photography. You know, you see the people with those huge lenses that are about a foot long, where you have to have a tripod just to hold the darned lens up, and species hunting requires an equivalent investment. ...but that doesn't mean that you can't make a nice recording of something that you hear and -- you now it just depends on what standard you're trying to reach.

STEVE: And taking a still photograph is a pretty quick thing, I mean, you can grab that photograph a second or two and then proceed on...

DAN DUGAN: ...I usually do a two minute take. In that amount of time I can usually get a really good picture of what is is I'm hearing. ...If you're doing this in the evening be sure to put your mosquito repellent on before you start trying to record, because you just have to absolutely stand like a stone. Any motion of your body is going to make a clothing noises.

STEVE: So I guess, in this day and age, a person might keep their audio scrapbook from their adventure on something like a digital audio player like an iPod, or something resembling that.

DAN DUGAN: You would be loading your stuff back into your computer when you get home the same as you do with your digital photos.

STEVE: And what are the problems people are most likely to encounter when they're trying to get a natural soundscape?

DAN DUGAN: I'd say wind is probably the most challenging thing that happens outdoors... So if you're on a budget you would be building your own wind screen. Unfortunately, quiet places are vanishing fast, and that's one good reason to go our and record before they're entirely gone. Uninterrupted time is getting rarer and rarer. ...It really only comes with experience and how to deal with the environment... and so I encourage people to go out and do it, and don't be discouraged by bad results. Practice makes perfect.

STEVE: And so if you're prepared, and a little bit lucky, maybe you could bag an elk.

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STEVE: You can find out more about the Park Services' Natural Sounds program, about recording your own natural sounds, and hear a combined, high-fidelity version of both parts of this show, on our web site. WildeBeat members can download a bonus clip with more sounds from the parks, and details of Kurt's work in the field. We'd like to hear your comments about this show, or your experiences with interesting or annoying sounds in parks. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373.

STEVE: This edition was made possible with funds provided by listeners like you.

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[part 1] Next time -- part two of Listening to Parks.

Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. We need your help to make future shows possible; please click on our support link and become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Institute.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number ninety. Thank you for listening.

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Next time -- getting teachers outside.

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