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The Recording Club at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge
by Paul Feyling

The recording club returned this year in January to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. Last year's trip had to be canceled when the flood waters inundated much of that region. Fortunately, this year the trip took place before the worst of the winter storms hit northern California. Member Paul Feyling sent in this report.

"Who wants to come with me to try to find snow geese?" Paul Matzner asked us as we met up in the parking lot at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. Snow geese provide the most impressive wildlife spectacle of the Sacramento Valley, gathering in massive numbers and flying back and forth between the refuges and the surrounding rice fields where they feed during the day. We couldn't resist the offer so all twelve of us on the recording trip joined Paul and drove around in a caravan on Saturday afternoon trying to find the fields where the geese might be feeding. And we drove and drove, but we didn't have any luck. Snow geese are unpredictable. They move on to new rice fields and they don't always return to the same refuge. There are, after all, hunters in the area, many of whom we saw standing around in their camouflage, looking somewhat puzzled themselves.

Later back at the Sacramento refuge as we waited for night to fall, we saw and recorded the crescendo of activity from the thousands of ducks in the ponds and saw clouds of red-wing blackbirds swoop over the marshes and stake out their spots, adding bursts of liquid chirping to the symphony of sounds. Finally just before dark we were rewarded by several flocks of snow geese flying overhead, some V formations passing over the refuge silently, like they were on a secret mission, the only sounds the squeaking of their wing beats. Other formations flew by with one or more of the geese honking their wild and evocative calls - the call that more than any other in the refuge evokes the great distances the geese and ducks migrate and the remote places that they come from: northern Canada, the Arctic tundra, the Yukon.

We gathered at the Blue Gum Inn for an enjoyable evening of good food and wine and conversation. But I woke up with little enthusiasm at five AM Sunday for going out into the pitch black, cold and damp morning to record snow geese that were most likely not in the refuge since they hadn't returned the previous evening. With much hesitation I dressed and headed there anyway, little realizing what delights were in store for me. As I drove through the marshes on the gravel road my headlights surprised one jack rabbit after another, seven in all. Each would seem dazzled by the light and try to run away, but only straight down the road, seeming to have forgotten that just off the road there was darkness and tall grass to hide in. I passed two cars from our group with members who were just setting up and from one a call went out to me, "Good luck today!", a greeting that later proved quite propitious.

Hooked up to my recording gear I walked to a place that seemed to offer the greatest concentration of bird sounds and swept my Sennheiser 815 shotgun microphones around to find the least amount of background noise. On a quiet morning such as this one, with no wind, distant noise from highways or from farm equipment can be pulled in very efficiently by highly directional microphones. Positioning myself so that the best bird sounds had the most quiet background behind them, I set my microphones down on their tripod and listened on my headphones to the wild symphony. One can't help but feel elated at the beauty and variety of sounds from thousands of birds, dozens of species; the ensuing roar a reminder of the primeval vitality of nature. The shotgun microphones telescope the sounds together, accentuating the feeling of abundance, bringing the sounds from all across the pond in close and up front. As it started to get light, gigantic V formations of snow geese flew over, heading for the rice fields. I saw some formations split into two or three separate groups that veered off in different directions, and I wondered how that was decided and if the flock would later be reunited. Here and there lone geese winged by. Their honking sounded more lonely and plaintive to me as I recalled reading that often lone geese are truly alone, their mates having died in previous seasons.

Standing still so as not to make any noise, I was thrilled to be able to record two ten-minute takes of uninterrupted sounds. But the greatest thrills were yet to come. Between me and the pond with the birds there was a channeled stream, about fifteen feet wide, swiftly flowing and with fairly steep banks. Suddenly I heard splashing sounds on my headphones and looked down to the stream to spy a long sleek otter pull himself up onto the opposite bank. He started grooming himself and rolled onto his back to groom his stomach when he spotted me and froze for a moment, but then continued smoothing his white chest fur. It seemed a privilege to be standing so close, little more than ten yards away, to such a wary creature. Otters have long been high on my list for sighting and watching, but I have only been lucky twice before and at greater distances than this time. Soon he dove back in the water with a loud splash and headed downstream, but the delight lingered with me.

While I was thinking how fortunate I had been, I had another surprise. A large beaver was coming from the pond and crossed the open grassyarea and waddled towards me and the stream bank. To my further surprise he headed straight for the spot where the otter had been. "He must be on a wildlife thoroughfare." I thought, although there was no trail through the grass that I could see. The beaver kept his nose to the ground, perhaps following a pheromone highway. Fat and healthy looking, his brown coat and black tail glistening, he came down the bank, oblivious to my presence, and slipped silently into the stream at the very same spot the otter had entered.

Still marveling at the sights that I had seen, I saw a commotion down-stream and headed up my way. Several wakes rippled the muddy water. Otters, for sure. This time several of them. They came up the stream and one after another hauled out on the very same spot as before. Frisky and playful, they slithered over each other, five otters in all, about the same size, heading up the bank, along the same pathway the beaver had come down. They were in a squirming line almost to the top of the bank when the one in the lead saw me and froze while the others bumped into him and each other. More noticed me and some hesitantly started to go back down. For a moment or two they presented a comical sight, the otters sliding and squirming over each other as they couldn't decide whether to climb up or return back down to the stream. Finally they gathered at the edge of the stream and looked at me, all five heads bobbing and weaving, trying to get a scent, then one by one they dove in to the water, sticking their heads out right away to scold me with indignant grunts and barks, their whiskers bristling and a look of annoyance on their faces. As they swam up past me, one continued his scolding and then they all dove under water and swam upstream as my tape came to the end and the recorder shut off. In my fascination I had forgotten that I was recording all their sounds, but as the recorder clicked off, I came out of my daze and realized what a rare morning it had been for both watching and recording. What I would have missed had I stayed in bed! How nature can reward us with unexpected delights!

But it wasn't simply good fortune. There was an explanation, as I realized when I looked downstream about a hundred yards to where a group of people had been gathered and talking on an observation deck. The otters had probably been driven up the stream by the people down below. I recalled something that Roger Tory Peterson once told me. Whenever he entered a wildlife area with a group of people he would try to separate from them and walk parallel but out of sight and down-wind and often have surprisingly close encounters with wildlife. Something worth remembering.

Later in the morning several of us drove south to the Colussa refuge where we finally saw huge flocks of snow geese in fields alongside the road. We set up and recorded their gabbling, and the noisy pandemonium and the impressive roar they made when they spooked and rose up together in a cloud of beating wings. Paul Matzner taught us that if you need to exit the car you always leave on the side away from the geese and stay behind the car so as not to scare them off until you are set up and positioned.

While I had expected that finding the snow geese would be the main highlight of our trip, it became the frosting on the cake and the grand finale to a very memorable weekend. We all owe a lot to Amy Hunter for organizing the excursion, and look forward to future outings of the recording club.

Articles from Spring 1998

  Letter From the Chair

Recording Possibilities for the Spring, Summer and Fall

Sound Recording Adventures in Antarctica (3): Recording at the Sea-Ice Edge

The Recording Club at the Sacramento NWR

Nature Sounds Newsletter

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