The value of wilderness preservation and environ mental conservation generally is well understood and appreciated. When it comes to recognizing landscapes of sound in nature, however, we humans can be at loss to identify which creatures are singing — or even realize that we hear them at all.
Our ears are always open, so the key to hearing nature's soundscape is to turn your attention to listening.
Here are some ideas for blocking out the clank of city traffic and whir of lawn-care motors to discover the sounds of wind, water, insects, birds and other animals.
Musicofnature.org. Lang Elliott, along with a team of naturalists, photographers and audio recordists, travels the world in search of places with unique sound experience. On his website, The Music of Nature: One Earth, Many Voices, Elliott has collected the sounds of birds, frogs, insects and mammals, which he shares freely in an artful, engaging manner.
Gracing the main page of the website is a sound clip titled "Dawn Chorus," recorded at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in Western Kentucky in spring 2010. Songbirds of all sorts make for a twittering cacophony. Elsewhere on the site is a late-night recording of crickets, howling coyotes and owls from Land Between the Lakes.
Blog entries about travels, videos and recordings, as well as a newsletter and many books with accompanying CDs, foster the excitement of encountering and learning about natural habitats and creatures that sing, croak, chirp and buzz.
"We focus on the process of discovering nature, of tuning in to its magnificence," Elliott writes in The Music of Nature's mission statement. "This is about exploring, finding, observing and documenting for the sheer joy of it. The goal is not to convey a set of facts — the goal is to improve the quality of a person's interaction with nature and to increase the depth of their experience of the natural world."
At a workshop in Ohio during summer 2010, I found this to be the case on a nighttime walk with Wil Hershberger, who co-wrote with Elliott The Songs of Insects (Houghton Mifflin, $19.95 including CD). Complete with larger-than-life color photos of more than 75 insects, background text and sonogram charts that are visual representations of the accompanying recordings, the book makes it easy to figure out which insect is creating which sound.
At the workshop, a group of adults, like kids at summer camp, found and identified katydids and crickets using listening skills we didn't know we had. The nighttime chorus was astounding.
Great Animal Orchestra by Bernie Krause. This book, subtitled Finding the Origins of Music in the World's Wild Places (Little, Brown and Co., $26.99), will open your ears to a wealth of listening experiences. But it also will open your mind to new ways to think about how the noises we humans generate affect animal communication in the wild.
Krause, a musician and environmental recording expert, has traveled the globe making recordings in all sorts of habitats, from crashing waves at Big Sur on California's coast to getting in close for tiny ant stridulations.
Tracing the connections between Earth's sounds and human music, like the percussive snapping and popping of burning wood, Krause sees music as a natural development. He has coined the term biophony to represent the collective, orchestrated sound of a habitat's living creatures.
A discussion of how the noise we humans produce adversely affects animal communication highlights the need for preservation efforts.
Sound recordings are included with audio and e-editions of the book, with spectrogram charts in the print version.
Peterson Field Guide apps for birdwatchers. Getting up to speed with bird songs and identification has become much easier for smartphone and tablet users.
The app Peterson Birds of North America ($4.99 for iPhone and iPad) is a complete guide that includes links from individual bird illustrations to their songs.
The free app Peterson Feeder Birds of North America (for iPhone and iPad) has a similar format but with a more limited range of species. It includes audio clips and details about how to attract birds to your back yard.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. The lab's website, Birds.cornell.edu, is noted for its long history of providing information and access to a large library of bird-song sound recordings. Posts at the blog (called "Round Robin"), photos, range maps and detailed text entries are provided, along with up-to-date articles related to research, education and conservation projects.
BirdTunes app. Created for iPhone and iPad by Harold Mills and Lang Elliot, this audio-visual reference can go with you on field trips. It includes recordings of North American bird songs and different calls that reflect a full range of avian vocabulary.
At Birdtunesapp.com, you can try a free "lite" version with 185 tracks recording 24 species. For more songs, spring for a basic version ($1.99 for 830 tracks of 135 species in Eastern and Central North America) or the full-scale version ($9.99 for 2,432 tracks of 674 species in all of North America).