On the Trails: Finding noise in the ‘Quiet’

If we venture off into the forest, away from town and roads (and aircraft, if possible), we often comment on the Quiet. But Quiet in the woods is not silence — it is the absence of human noise. Then we can hear the little sounds and contemplate the small stories they tell.

Most of us notice — at least sometimes — the conspicuous songs and calls of birds. Many folks rejoice at the first song of a varied thrush that is heard in spring. A friend enjoys the “rattling key chain” vocalization of golden-crowned kinglets. Some of us are cheered every time we hear the song of the American dipper. Those sounds are noticeable by anyone who pays a bit of attention. Birdwatchers pay a lot of attention and do almost as much “watching” by ear as by sight.

Not so very long ago, many of us enjoyed a talk by Hank Lentfer and Richard Nelson, featuring their recordings of some natural sounds. Some of these sounds were easy to identify, while others, being much magnified, were harder. Easy or hard, it was an enjoyable and educational presentation.

Taking a cue from those well-known naturalists, I thought it would be fun to think about some of the small sounds in nature, sounds that become perceptible in the Quiet, sounds that otherwise might easily be overlooked. With the contributions of two observant and thoughtful friends, here is a sampling of small sounds that we have enjoyed as we stroll along, stopping every so often to look and listen.

• wing beats of ravens, wind rasping through their feathers as the birds power their way along, in contrast to the slower, softer wingbeats of a heron;

• the puff of air as surfacing sea lions exhale, quite different from the puff of porpoises as they pass by;

• thud of falling spruce cones, nipped off by a red squirrel;

• rattle of lupine seeds as they fall, when warm weather makes the ripe seed pods burst open;

• rustling leaf litter as Steller’s jays bury nuts or search for previous stashes;

• fluttering leaves as a wren flits through the shrubs, and the wren’s quiet little notes used to keep in contact with others;

• creaking of tree trunks in the wind;

• a woodpecker flaking off bark scales from a spruce;

• clattering of dry leaves falling through twigs and branches;

• bill-clacking of nestling herons;

• murmuring of a beaver family in its lodge;

• scraping of the “tongue” of a banana slug feeding on a leaf;

• the distant roar of sea lions and the far-away whoosh of a spouting whale;

• whistling wings of goldeneye ducks taking off;

• rhythmical lapping of water on a sandy beach or the quite different pattern of water lapping against rocks;

• strong wind in conifers compared to that in deciduous trees;

• geese talking as they travel north to the nesting grounds or south to the wintering grounds;

• waves withdrawing over a pebble beach;

• hoar frost crackling when it collapses;

• the buzz of a bee changing as it enters a flower;

• the grinding of deer or moose teeth when foraging or a beaver gnawing bark from a branch;

• lake ice popping and groaning on a cold winter day.

I’ve focused here on auditory perceptions. But perhaps it is useful to keep in mind that we can use all of our senses when we are out and about, and doing so can enrich the experience.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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