Science

National Park Nature Walks, Episode 4: Beautiful Swamp


Welcome to Scientific American’s National Park Nature Walks. I’m your host and guide Jacob Job. 

Today, we head into the swamp.

For the better part of a decade, I’ve explored national parks and other protected areas across the country and world, developing a deep respect and appreciation for them. I’m also a conservationist and ecologist, and so I’ve spent a lot of time *alone*, recording the sounds of the species and places I encounter. I want to connect you to these places as well. 

In this podcast, I’ll share those sounds with you, along with some interpretation of who’s making them and what they mean so you’re better equipped to take advantage of your next visit to one of our parks. 

National Park Nature Walks is an immersive listening experience that recreates what it’s like to be there with me. To maximize your experience, slip on a pair of headphones and find a quiet, cozy space to unwind and relax in.

In today’s episode we head to the deep south, to the flooded forested swamps of the Mississippi River Valley. We’re going to explore Tensas National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Louisiana. Established in 1998, the refuge protects 64,000 acres of second and old-growth hardwood forest that was the last known home to the famous Ivory-billed Woodpecker, which went extinct in the 1930s. Here, we’ll start the day before sun up, chest waders on, walking through flooded forest near the refuge headquarters. We’ll hear Gray tree frogs and crickets end their nighttime shift while the refuge’s countless bird species greet the dawn with a myriad of songs and calls. This place is full of cool species and sounds that I’m excited to introduce to you! Let’s go for a walk. 

We’ve made our way into the middle of this bottomland forest which is currently flooded because heavy spring rains have overflowed the nearby Tensas River. In fact, a thunderstorm just passed over an hour ago, so it’s still a little windy and wet.

Bottomland forests like this one are specially adapted to yearly floods and created a unique habitat for so many species. 

The water were standing in is completely still, reflecting the trees above us. 

Tree species here are plentiful and include overcup, willow, and water oak. Bald cypress, sweetgum, ash, pecan, sycamore, and elm. 

We’re also surrounded by chest-high stands of Palmetto, a spikey-leafed plant unique to the south. The waders keep us dry and protects our skin from the palmetto leaves.

Around us are all kinds of wildlife, including deer, armadillo, wild hogs, black bears, scores of bird species, numerous bat and snake species, and of course countless frogs, including the very loud Gray tree frogs we’re hearing now.

Let’s take a few minutes to sit and enjoy the last few sounds of nighttime as the sun crests the horizon and slowly brings with it the dawn chorus of birds. I always enjoy the relative calm of this time of day. Especially before all the birds begin to overwhelm the air with song.

Huh, How fitting! Our first bird of the day is the Prothonotary Warbler. Let’s listen for it again.

Right there! 

It’s known as the Golden Swamp Bird because of its bright yellow plummage. They love bottomland swamps like this one we’re standing in.

The birds are really getting going now. We’re nearing peak migration so I’m going to warn you, the sounds here are going to be overwhelming. But we’ll take it slow and try to learn a few species along the way.

No way! Hear that? I think I hear a bird I’ve never seen before. Yeah! Let’s get a little closer.

Yup! A Swainson’s Warbler! There are two of them singing back and forth with each other. Listen for their sharp, cascading songs? 

There! 

And there!

These secretive warblers live in dense forests like this in the deep south. You really have to work to get a good look. Let’s take a few minutes to enjoy this rare find.

I hear another warbler species. I think you’re going to really like this one. 

There! 

This is a Hooded Warbler, and again, there are two males singing back and forth with each other.

Hooded Warblers are unmistakable with bright yellow bodies, dark black hood, and bright yellow cheeks.

Not the birds we’re hearing now, but certain populations of Hooded Warblers have a song that sounds like they’re saying “wheeta wheeta wheeteo”. I like to think they’re saying “I want to rent a video”.

I see something red way above us. Maybe we it’ll fly out and give us a better look.

Hear that raspy series of musical phrases?

There! 

That’s a Summer Tanager singing above us. These bright red birds are beautiful, but can be difficult to see way up in the tree canopy.

This bird just arrived on the refuge. Summer Tanagers spend the winter in Central and South America, but come here to breed.

Another bird species just flew into the branches next to the tanager.

Hear those high-pitched rapid notes? They’re from a Tennessee Warbler.

They’re not overly colorful, but their songs more than make up for it. They’re so full of energy!

This bird won’t stay here at Tensas. It’ll spend the summer in the boreal forests of Canada.

Our Summer Tanager is now calling. 

Hear that pit ti tick. Pit ti. Pit ti tick. That’s their call.

Let’s make our way out of this flooded section of forest and over to a drier part. I think you’re going to be surprised by all the birds we hear there.

Right away I can hear a whole new group of bird species. 

First, that loud, joyful sound song is from a Carolina Wren.

That one!

When accounting for size, I think they are one of the loudest birds in the forest.

If you listen closely, you can hear one of my all-time favorite species. There!

That beautiful, ethereal eee-ooo-lay. That’s from a Wood Thrush.

The first recording I ever made was of a Wood Thrush in my backyard in Tennessee when I was 14 years old.

Hear those sharp, metallic notes? They’re from a Northern Cardinal. 

It’s also bright red like the Tanager, but spends most of its time down closer to the forest floor.

It’s a really common species in the Eastern United States that many of us can see in our yards.

Now our cardinal is starting to sing.

Right there!

They sing like they’re warming up. Each song is a little longer than the previous.

Oh cool! A Great-crested Flycatcher! What a great morning for birds!

Hear its raspy ‘preeep’ calls?

There!

They are the largest flycatchers in this forest and will aggressively chase insects into branches and  down to the ground.

‘Hey you, quick with a beer, check!”

That’s the song of a White-eyed Vireo. Such a fun song to hear and very common in these forests.

Huh, a Barred owl just called!

Those quiet, sad-sounding coos off in the distance are from Mourning Doves.

Huh, now there’s a cool bird! It’s from a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. 

Listen for the harsh, guttural, repeated calls and loud cries.

There!

There’s the Barred Owl again.

Pizza! Did you hear it? Listen again!

There!

That’s an Acadian Flycatcher. It’s the smallest flycatcher in this forest, but it has a really big voice!

Our Barred Owls are really talking to each other now! Let’s take a few minutes to hear what they have to say.

There’s our cuckoo again!

Whoa! Listen to that woodpecker above us! 

They drum on trees like this to tell other males that this is their territory.

This male certainly has the attention of the other male’s. Listen to all of the drumming now!

Hear that squeak? Kind of like a sneaker skidding across a gym floor? That’s a from a Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

These birds are so gorgeous. They have a dark black back and bright white front, with a big blotch of bright raspberry red on its chest.

I don’t know about you but my ears have had about all they can handle. Sometimes on days like this, with this much bird song, I go to bed at night with it ringing in my ears. It’s a good problem to have.

And with that, I hope you’ve enjoyed Tensas National Wildlife Refuge. Thank you for joining me. I’ll see you on our next National Park Nature Walk.


 


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