Nearly every day of every year I visit a theater, nature’s theater, where multiple dramas play non-stop across the clock and across every page of the calendar. The architecture of the place is complicated, with countless stages that blend seamlessly from one to the next, and with ever-changing set designs and lighting that excite our eyes and challenge our minds.
After years of visiting the wild world next door, I am beginning to realize something: the key to the stage door of nature’s theater is sound, that is, the key is our familiarity with the four seasons of nature’s sounds. We need the key to get inside, to see and appreciate the current production.
This page includes 33 sound samples, recorded in stereo, that connect to vignettes in Wild Love Story, a book that celebrates nature’s theater. Get your tickets now!
Page 11 - Northern Red-legged Frogs
On my forest outings, I often encounter Northern Red-legged Frogs. Subtle is the word to describe the sounds they make. A human might easily walk within a few feet of this species and not notice its vocals.
The following three recordings do not represent all the sounds made by Northern Red-legged Frogs, but they are the ones I hear most often.
Listen to a solitary male calling from a thicket of salal about 20 feet from the water’s edge. The 8-second recording includes two calls. Each of his calls includes 5 notes, but that number can vary. Turn up the volume on your device. Red-legged Frogs have tiny voices.
On a mid-February afternoon, I encountered a pair. The male held tightly to the much larger female in a behavior called amplexus. No fertilization of eggs takes place during amplexus. Fertilization takes place later when both male and female are in water. He fertilizes the eggs after she releases them.
When I found the pair, their bodies were on the muddy bank of the pond; their legs were in the water. Minutes later they moved a few inches upslope. That is where I recorded their subtle sounds. Subtle too was their appearance - their skin colors blended well with the reds and browns of the mud and sticks along the water’s edge.
In this recording, you hear him utter 5 or 6 notes each time, whereas she utters weaker notes, just two or three each time.
On pages 8 - 11 in Wild Love Story I describe a natural event that happened one January day when the temperature rose above 50 degrees F in the forest. Northern Red-legged Frogs responded to warming temperatures by migrating to a breeding pond where a circus of activity began.
One spectacle took place on the mossy flanks of an alder tree at the water’s edge. A number of males clung tightly to a much larger female, forming what some call a “mating ball.” Two of the males made sounds, and the female uttered sounds of her own.
The 12-second sound clip was recorded about 2 feet from the group.
In the final paragraph on page 11, I mention the Pacific Chorus Frog, a species you are likely to hear in our local forests, nearly year-round. Sometimes called the Pacific Tree Frog, these tiny amphibians come equipped with generous voices. Sometimes they say “ribbit;” sometimes they utter a creaky, scratchy sound that rises in pitch.
The following 46-second recording showcases chorus frogs making both of their common calls, beginning with an exchange of “creaks,” followed by “ribbits” and variations of those calls. The recording ends with three simple “ribbits.” On a 2-speaker listening device, you will notice this was recorded in stereo.
Page 17 - Woodpecker drumming (from "The Percussionists")
To hear a woodpecker drumming in the forest is to hear one of the forest’s most unique sounds. Imagine a bird – some as small as a sparrow, some larger than a crow – striking their bill against a snag so hard that the machine gun-like sound travels for half a mile or more. No hole is created, just a lot of sound! Drumming is a territorial display. “This is my territory, for nesting and for feeding,” they announce.
The forest I visit has three common woodpecker species. Other species visit occasionally. Let’s listen to recordings of the common species.
If sighting our largest woodpecker - the Pileated Woodpecker - were not enough, hearing the sounds they make is equally amazing. They produce a variety of loud vocals, but in this recording we hear one drumming on a Douglas-fir snag. A male strikes the dead but solid wood 24 times in under 2 seconds. I have done the math on quite a few recordings of Pileated drumming, and each time I find that the wood is struck approximately 14 times per second.
Flickers produce wonderful vocals, but they also drum on snags. As you may know, they also drum on house gutters, metal chimneys, walls, and a variety of human-built surfaces. Keep in mind that drumming is not about excavating a hole; it is about making sound. Flickers sometimes do damage to human-built structures, but not when they drum.
You can tell from the recording and the sonogram that flickers are faster drummers than the larger Pileated Woodpecker.
Of the three woodpeckers that I have chosen to feature, the Hairy Woodpecker is the smallest of the three and the most common in the forest that I visit. Like flickers, Hairy Woodpeckers are also rapid drummers.
Page 23 - Great Horned Owls (from "Ritual at Dusk")
Many people hear the soft hoots of Great Horned Owls year-round, but during the courtship season, Great Horned Owls produce a wonderful array of seasonal sounds. Here are some samples of their complex vocals.
In this early March recording we hear a simple exchange between a male and female, the same bonded pair that I describe in the story “Ritual at Dusk” in Wild Love Story. He begins the communication with a long series of “chuckles” that precede the common 5-note call of the species. She responds immediately with her own 5-note call. Her call is louder because she is closer to my recording equipment.
Notice the difference in the voices of the male and female. She hoots faster than he does, and her voice has a higher pitch.
Courtship begins for Great Horned Owls during the wintertime. I followed one pair regularly over a three-month period, and visited other pairs as well. For Great Horned Owls, and for many species, nothing brings out more interesting behaviors and vocals than courtship.
The following recording was taken from one 2-hour session with the pair, again the same pair from the story “Ritual at Dusk.” In it we hear the female break a period of silence with her typical 5-note call. The male responds quickly, overlapping her call with his own 5-note call. A second later, after their brief exchange, he launches into flight toward his mate, “whoowhoowhooing” as he flies, then lands on her back, flaps his wings, and for almost three seconds we hear some of the most bizarre sounds created by Great Horned Owls.
Late in the recording, both male and female give 5-note calls. He flies away in the darkness, and at the end we hear him calling from a distant perch.
Page 27 - Pileated Woodpecker (from "75-Day Investment")
In the story “Seventy-five Day Investment” we visit a Grand Fir snag where a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers excavate a nest and raise their young. Let’s listen to a few recordings I made during their lengthy process of reproduction.
Male and female Pileated Woodpeckers share the task of excavating a new nest cavity each year. In the first recording, we hear the male working inside a Grand Fir snag, “nestcavating” a fresh cavity for the season’s nest. As he strikes the wood over and over with his bill, the entire snag resonates with sound.
The parent woodpeckers share the task of incubating the eggs until they hatched. Then both parents stay busy foraging for insects to feed their nestlings.
In this 2-minute recording, we first hear sounds from the parents who have perched on different sides of the same tree about 30 feet from the nest snag. For just over thirty seconds they make the subtle sounds that adults make when they are near one another. We hear the soft sound of the female’s wings as she flies to the nest where a male nestling has his head out the hole. He makes plenty of noise as she regurgitates food and feeds him for just over a minute. When the female parent enters the hole, we hear the muffled sounds of all three nestlings inside the snag.
Pileated Woodpeckers produce a wonderful array of sounds year-round. Perhaps their signature call is the one below. The call’s quality and volume let us know that the sound comes from a large bird. You can easily hear this call from a distance of hundreds of yards.
Page 29 - Barred Owl (from "Crazy Monkey Duet")
Barred Owls treat us to a wonderful array of vocals. Bird books generally mention their 9-syllable call, the one so often described as “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?” In this 6-second recording, we hear the male make the call.
Barred Owls have a repertoire of sounds that go way beyond the “who cooks” call. Their “whoo-ah” sound, as I call it, is one example. I made the following recording in early June during Barred Owl nesting season. We hear the female making three calls, spaced about 14 seconds apart.
From about a mile away, I heard another female Barred Owl giving the same call from her nesting area. A few nights later, I was able to record her whoo-ah’s from just thirty feet distance. In the dim light, about two seconds before she called, she leaned forward to broadcast her sound, and the barred area beneath her bill puffed up. Her two calls on this recording are about 20 seconds apart.
Like the other female, she ends her whoo-ah with a quavering howl, just as female Barred Owls do with their 9-syllable “who cooks” call
Barred Owls sometimes embellish the whoo-ah call with a long series of increasingly loud hoots that precede the whoo-ah ending. In this recording we hear the male, followed by the female, and then the male again. He sounds a bit louder because he was a little closer to my microphone. Notice again the difference in pitch and the way male and female Barred Owls finish their calls.
Anyone who visits a forest inhabited by Barred Owls will likely hear the above calls and more. Barred Owls have extensive vocabularies, but their vocals reach another level during the season of courtship, a time when they engage in what I call the Crazy Monkey Duet. Every performance differs, but each duet includes a mix of dramatic flourishes, with overlapping barks, hoots, howls and caterwauling.
In the “Crazy Monkey Duet” section of the book Wild Love Story, I describe my evenings with the following pair of Barred Owls. In the this 29-second recording - selected from a 3 ½-minute session - we hear the male and female duetting, and we even hear the sounds of shifting feet and wings brushing against branches.
In the following 52-second long recording, we hear the pair duet on a later date. The male calls first. The female joins the duet with her higher-pitched voice.
Page 31 - Douglas Squirrel (from "The Owl & the Squirrel")
In the story “The Owl and the Squirrel,” the owl does not succeed in getting the squirrel, but Barred Owls do capture and eat Douglas Squirrels.
In the following recording, we hear the single alarm notes mentioned on page 30 in Wild Love Story. An owl has invaded a Douglas Squirrel’s territory, and the squirrel creates a series of alarm notes that can go on for minutes. We hear a 14-second sample.
Some months later, far from the first incident, a juvenile Barred Owl perched on the limb of an alder. A Douglas Squirrel in a nearby tree spied the owl and began sounding a series of alarm notes. A distant squirrel heard the commotion and joined in with its higher pitched calls, eventually timing its alarm notes in almost perfect synchrony with the first squirrel.
Next, we hear the Douglas Squirrel’s chatter call. I hear this sound often in the fall, during the time when they cut and gather conifer cones.
This feisty little squirrel scolded me from a tree. They do that when we invade their territory. I call the first sound their “panic attack,” and it’s accompanied by frantic movements. The recording includes a bit of noise from the squirrel’s nails as the squirrel shifts positions on the tree’s bark.
Page 39 - Great Horned Owls (from "Three Leave the Nest")
Imagine visiting on online site and finding a sound clip with a note: “This is what a human sounds like.” That would be an oversimplification, but we commonly make that mistake with wildlife.
Spend time with owls and we discover that they have unique voices and complex vocabularies that vary from region to region and from owl to owl. Here are a couple of examples:
In the forest I visit, the most common sound made by Great Horned Owls is what I refer to as their 5-note call, the whoo whoo-whoo whoo whoo call. We often hear two or more owls exchanging the call. Here’s a sample of a female broadcasting her 5-note call.
Then there is Mrs Wiggle, the mother of the three baby Great Horned Owls pictured on page 39 in Wild Love Story. I recognize her by her signature call, her own version of the 5-note call. Some of her notes have a quavering quality – a “wiggle.” In this recording her mate calls first.
Not far from Mrs Wiggle and her mate’s territory, a second pair of Great Horned Owls claims a territory. The female of the pair voices the common 5-note call of the species, but the male of the pair – I call him Mr 3Note – broadcasts a unique, abbreviated call.
The recording begins with Mr 3Note’s simple call. His mate immediately responds with her higher-pitched, quicker-paced, 5-note call. A few seconds later, Mr 3Note calls again. From year to year, he has maintained his signature call.
Many people are puzzled when they first hear the sound made by young Great Horned Owls. “What on Earth is that?” The call bears no resemblance to the sounds they will make as adults. In this 12-second recording, we hear the raspy calls from one recently fledged owl.
Page 61 – Northern Flicker (from “Nest Over Water”)
With their loud voices, Northern Flickers let us know where they are. They create a rich array of sounds. In the following recording, we hear the call that some describe as their rattle call. The flicker rotates its head as it calls, making it seem as though the volume fluctuates.
In following recording, we hear the loud and common kyeer call three times, and just past the 3-second point in the recording, the flicker flies to another snag and makes its special inflight sound, something they often do even during short flights from one position on a snag to another position on the same snag.
Flicker nestlings create a chorus of begging sounds when an adult arrives with food at the nest entrance.
As Northern Flicker nestlings grow, they make loud, adult-like calls of their own. In this recording we first hear a male nestling (He and his siblings are pictured on the cover of Wild Love Story) calling from the opening of the nest. In the distance, one of his parents responds, and an exchange of kyeer calls begins.
Page 63 - Young Barred Owls (from "Welcome to the World")
It was 9:30pm and growing dark when I heard two juvenile Barred Owls. Perched side by side on a tree branch, they were small, covered with down and were the first juveniles I had seen this season. One of them gyrated its head while gazing at me, and I recorded the sounds it made.
For days after leaving the nest, fledglings stay within sight of each other, or at least within calling distance, and they broadcast their location with a raspy, hissing sound. Aware of the location of their young, the parents are elsewhere hunting, but they return to feed and care for their young.
One day I heard the distinctive sound of Barred Owl fledglings. I hiked toward the sound, and when the young owls caught sight of me, they flew to perches that ranged from 8 to 15 feet from me.
In this recording, we hear the voices of all three juveniles – siblings who once shared the same nest. The volume of their voices varies due to the different distances from the microphone.
Page 71 - American Bullfrog (from "Islands in the Pond")
On this SoundLink page, we have heard the subtle sounds of the Red-legged Frog and the loud voices of the Pacific Chorus (Tree) Frog, but in recent years we have a newcomer to the ponds I visit. There is no mistaking the baritone sound of the American Bullfrog.
They breed later than our other frog species. I am hearing them often in June and July and even into early September. In this recording we hear the low-pitched bellow of an individual bullfrog.