From the Field

Soundscapes of Arizona’s Aravaipa Canyon

February 27, 2019

Cliffs at sunrise
The vertical cliffs of Aravaipa Canyon. Photo © Michael Greene/WildMoments

In 2017, I embarked on an extended nature recording expedition to western North America. I was on the road for six months and drove a total of 30,000 miles. The bulk of my time was spent in the Southwest, including visiting a variety of Nature Conservancy preserves.

By far my favorite was Aravaipa Canyon in southeastern Arizona. This 16-mile canyon is owned by The Nature Conservancy at each end, with a 10-mile stretch in the center managed as a designed wilderness.

The bulk of my recording was done at Cobra Ranch, The Nature Conservancy’s holding on the eastern end of the canyon. Acquired in 2009, Cobra Ranch is a showcase preserve. The whole canyon is an oasis in the desert and I find myself longing for yet another taste of the tonic of wildness I found there.

I hope my soundscapes capture that magic for you.

About The Recordings

Early in my career, my primary goal was to capture closeup recordings of as many species as possible. Using parabolic reflectors and other directional microphones, I strived to extract each species’ sounds from the environment, so that they could be heard cleanly and clearly, with minimal background noise. Without doubt, such recordings are very useful in the creation of identification-oriented guides.

In recent years, however, my focus has shifted rather dramatically. Now I am far more interested in the soundscape as a whole, in the “symphonies of natural sound” that one experiences in wild and remote areas. While I remain attentive to the biological content of recordings, including the species that contribute to each soundscape, I always strive to render sound-objects in an artful and balanced manner, agreeably embedded in the larger composition of sound.

The educational value of my recording is important, but is no longer the driving force behind my work. I desire recordings that simply sound good, that appeal to the senses, and that have a positive impact on the human psyche … recordings that effortlessly transport the listener into wild nature.

To accomplish my goal, I use special “binaural” microphones that simulate the human head, with two microphones placed about seven inches apart and separated by an absorbent baffle. Such recordings capture important spatial cues that allow the human brain to determine the directions and distances of incoming sounds. If one uses headphones to listen to binaural recordings, it is as if one is actually out there in nature, immersed in a realistic three-dimensional environment.

If at all possible, please use headphones when listening to the binaural soundscape recordings featured below. Otherwise you will not experience the incredible pleasure of 3D sound immersion.

Desert plants like this agave flourish in the canyon. Photo © Justin Bailie

The Soundscapes:

A sampling of Aravaipa soundscapes are featured below, all binaurally recorded for a truly immersive listening experience. Please don your headphones and listen without distraction… surrender yourself to Aravaipa’s magic spell.

Turkey Dawn (April 30, 5:30am) – I arrive at Cobra Ranch late in the evening and decide to sleep in my car next to the creek. Awakening at first light, I hear a wild turkey sounding off in the distance. I move in his direction, wading upstream until the soundscape comes into focus. Such a pleasing constellation of sound. The relaxing gurgle of Aravaipa Creek spreads wide across the sound-stage. The repeated gobbles of the turkey add body to the mix, and the high-pitched songs of yellow warblers, yellow-breasted chats and other songbirds infuse the soundscape with whistled melodies.

Gentle Crickets and Gurgling Brook (May 1, 9:40pm) – It is shortly after dusk. While exploring Aravaipa Creek, I come upon a relaxing, gently gurgling section with crickets calling softly from grass and shrubs at the edge of the stream. I discern three kinds of crickets. At the low end, what I believe to be a snowy tree cricket gives measured musical chirps, providing a steady rhythm against which the brook burbles and splashes with infinite variety. Higher up, individuals of a second species chirp more quickly, creating a soft, musical whirring sound. And higher yet, individuals of a third species produce long, almost continuous ringing trills … musical buzzes that have a slightly penetrating quality. Listening intently, I also notice the occasional whinnies of a distant elf owl, calling from somewhere in the surrounding forest.

I stand silently in the middle of the stream, mesmerized by what I hear … the voices of the creek and crickets and owl combine to produce a pleasing medley that is far greater than the sum of its parts.

A creek, cliffs and willow trees
Fall colors along Aravaipa Creek in Arizona’s Aravaipa Canyon Preserve, Arizona. Photo © Greg Gamble/TNC

Treefrog Congregation (May 1, 10:10pm) – After meditating on the cricket and stream soundscape (see above), I pack up my recording gear with the intention of heading back to my camp. But just before leaving, I’m startled by loud, rattling calls erupting all around me. Oh my gosh … canyon treefrogs! I hurriedly set up my microphone again, hit record, and then stand back. It’s about time that I got a recording of this species. I’ve been in Arizona for nearly three months, and these are the first canyon treefrogs I’ve encountered.

Screech-Owl Interlude (May 2; 5:00am) – With a hint of light in the eastern sky, I stop at the preserve kiosk. I hear the hoots of great horned owls way off in the distance, set against the rush of Aravaipa Creek several hundred yards away. Violet-green swallows give high-pitched chips as they fly overhead. Then a big surprise! From the shrub thicket just behind the kiosk, a western screech-owl suddenly calls, its resonant, bouncing toots thrilling my ears. He’s so close I’m sure I could spot him, but I dare not turn on my headlamp. I also hear the soft coos of a mourning dove and occasional notes from a yellow-breasted chat some distance away. Finally, a northern cardinal chimes in with his musical, whistled song. Such an wondrous soundscape, marking the transition from night into day!

A western screech owl. Photo © Frank D. Lospalluto / Flickr Commons

Dawn at Willow Narrows (May 15, 5:25am): Just before dawn, I place my soundscape microphone in a narrow, gently-flowing section of Aravaipa Creek where willows cluster in a swampy area next to a cliff. I walk a short distance away and sit on the ground, with my back against a tall cottonwood tree. As the dawn chorus unfolds, I realize this is an exceptional mix of sound. The gurgling of the creek is subtle, mourning doves sing prominently, and I notice a yellow-breasted chat giving its disjointed song in the distance. A gila woodpecker sounds off and I detect a brown-crested flycatcher calling occasionally.

Quite obvious is a high-pitched song I am unable to identity. It sounds like the drink-your-teeeee of the eastern towhee back home, but they aren’t found here. So it must be a spotted towhee, or perhaps a green towhee? Ah… the loud, plaintive whistles of a gray hawk, not far downstream. And I hear the wing buzz of a hummingbird of some sort, quite close but obscured by the shrubs.

I’m so deeply grateful to be here now, resting in the glow of dawn along this enchanting creek, awash in one of the most pleasing symphonies of sound that I’ve ever heard.

Hikers in a canyon
The west side trail head of Aravaipa Canyon Preserve, AZ. Photo credit: © Justin Bailie / TNC

Nightbirds (May 15, 10:30pm) – Before retiring for the night, I take a long walk up Turkey Creek Canyon, enjoying the robust insect chorus and listening for other night sounds. About a mile from my camp, I come upon an elf owl, giving spirited whinnies from a shrub thicket. Then, as if the soundscape was being orchestrated to please my ears, a common poorwill begins singing off in the distance. Can it get any better than this? Well, yes it can. After several minutes, the elf owl quits singing, and the poorwill sounds off from the cliff directly above me. I delight in being close enough to hear the subtle gulping sound that he makes at the end of each song. So sweet are the voices of the nightbirds, accompanied by the incessant chirps and trills of the insect musicians!

Bear Clan (May 16, 1:15am) – I must admit that I slept through the entire event. I had placed a microphone about a hundred feet from my tent, in the dry stream bed of Turkey Creek, and let it run all night long. Around 1 am, something very, very large passed by in the darkness, crashing about in the vegetation, thumping the ground, and even snorting loudly.

Listening to the recording the next morning, I am awestruck. I’m sure it was a black bear, and I believe it was a mamma with at least one cub … the cub making the single wailing note. Oh my god … a black bear passed nearby and I was just laying there in my tent, lost in my dreams? And what if it wasn’t a black bear at all, but instead some other furry beast with very big feet … I mean really, really big feet… and an upright stance to boot?

Endangered! (May 16, 7:20am) – Along a marshy stretch of Aravaipa Creek with dense cattails and overhanging willows, I make what turns out to be a significant discovery … the southwestern willow flycatcher, an endangered subspecies! Not just one, but two singing back-and-forth, their vibrant fitz-bews and occasional bzzits rising above all the other bird sounds.

The next day, I stop by the preserve headquarters to tell Mark Haberstich (the preserve manager) about my discovery. His eyes light up … I’m the first to report their presence, and my recording is living proof! Wow, shouldn’t I get a gold star or something?

Photo © Lang Elliot / TNC

Bear Canyon Chorus (May 17, 5:50am) – At the break of dawn, I head a short distance up Bear Canyon, a wide tributary of Aravaipa Creek that is bone dry during the spring season. My destination is a cliff with a cave-like hollow at the bottom, surrounded by a thicket of shrubs and small trees. I quickly place my microphone among the shrubs and then sit quietly on a log.

The dawn chorus is rich and varied. A house finch warbles. I hear the telltale contact-call of a gambel’s quail and the low-pitched coo of a mourning dove. A great-horned owl hoots way off in the distance. Then a Canyon Wren sounds off loudly from a ledge on the cliff above, his musical whistles cascading downward. Oh my, did I hear a poorwill in the background? And then the complex “assembly” call of the quail: k’kah-k’wah, k’kah-k’wah. And was that a cardinal, or was it a pyrrhuloxia? Ornithologist and poet Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) once said: “Bury me where the birds will sing over my grave.” I share his sentiment, and can’t help but wonder if someone is buried here?

Unexpected Owl (May 24, 4:20am) – Aravaipa Canyon and Turkey Creek are rich in owls and I feel very fortunate to have gotten recordings of great-horned owl, elf owl and western screech-owl. I knew there was yet another quite remote possibility, but getting it was only a wishful thought in my mind until my last night in the Aravaipa wonderland.

At dusk, I place one of my microphones in the creek bed a few hundred feet from my tent. Then I crawl into my sleeping bag and fall fast asleep. At midnight, I awaken briefly. The insect chorus has mellowed, but nothing else is going on, so I tumble back into my dreams. Shortly before dawn, I suddenly become alert. “Did I just hear something odd, or was it just in my dream?” “There… the hoot of an owl… a barred owl… no, that’s got to be a spotted owl, a mexican spotted owl.” A smile comes over my face. Then I hear thin screams coming from a different direction. “Must be the mate,” I surmise. And then some very loud hoots, from quite close by. O frabjous day! Then a more distant hoot followed by some of the strangest sounds I’ve ever heard. I’m ecstatic, but also concerned … I sure do hope my recorder is still running.

Photo © Lang Elliot / TNC

Dawn Song Delights (May 24, 5:10am) – At first light, I awaken to a wonderful performance … two brown-crested flycatchers giving dawn songs from their perches high on the surrounding cliffs. One is to my left, the other to my right. Their resonant songs echo across Turkey Creek Canyon. A Common Poorwill soon joins in, and various other songbirds gradually make their presence known as dawn unfolds. Listening closely, I hear the occasional wing noises of birds, fluttering in the dense foliage, as well as the buzz of flies, stirring into action well before the rising of the sun. What an uplifting prelude to this most amazing day!

Hawk’s Lair (May 24, 8:45am) – While exploring Turkey Creek in mid-morning, I stumble upon a cooper’s hawk nest. Actually, I don’t know exactly where the nest is, but the hawk is perched above me, giving its telltale alarm cries … so the nest is definitely nearby. I notice the incessant drone of bees, probably gathering nectar from flowers hidden in the large thicket of shrubs and trees. Just as I get ready to leave the area, a cliff chipmunk starts sounding off, its hollow clucking notes signaling its displeasure at seeing the hawk, a potential predator. I am reminded of the eastern chipmunks back home in the Northeast. They also have an aerial predator alarm call that sounds much the same, although their clucks are perhaps not quite as musical as those of the cliff chipmunk. Hey … is that a warbling vireo singing its hurried little song in the background?

Lang-Chat at End of Stay (May 24, 8:25pm) – Quite often, especially when I’m getting ready to leave a magical location, I record myself speaking so that I’ll have a voiced reminder of my impressions of a place and my experience there. I’m generally reluctant to share my “lang-chats” because most are rather personal. But this one is rather tame and it almost seems like I’m talking to the outside world anyway, so why not share it with you?

Note: In my chat I mention that I missed the flycatcher dawn songs because of a full disc, but later I discovered that I had captured perhaps an even better example from a second microphone I had placed a short distance down the canyon (see above: “Dawn Song Delights”).

A canyon and creek
View down Aravaipa Creek to Brandenberg Mountain, Aravaipa Canyon Preserve Arizona. Photo © Hal Malde

 Lang Elliott has been a professional nature recordist for 30 years. He has authored numerous books and CDs featuring the songs and calls of our native birds, frogs, insects, and mammals. You can learn more at his web site, The Music of Nature and also download his free mobile application that features a comprehensive selection of immersive nature soundscapes (including Aravaipa soundscapes), Pure Nature – 3D Soundscapes.

Join the Discussion

Please note that all comments are moderated and may take some time to appear.

11 comments

  1. Love it. But I would tend to think the one recording isn’t a bear, but sounds more like javalina.

    1. Adam:

      It is true that I didn’t actually see the soundmaker(s), and it is certainly possible it was a Javelina. But when I listen with headphones that have good low frequency response, I am impressed by the all the very low-pitched thumping as the “thing” approached. Even in the distance the resonant thumps were evident and impressive, which tells me that the “thing” was quite large. I can’t imagine a Javelina producing those low pitches with it’s rather small hoofed toes. I’ve had them run away from me in the forest (in Arizona and Texas), and didn’t get the same impression at all. In Texas, a large group of the ran from me when I disturbed them in the night. The sound was that of “small hooves” pattering. So I still think it was a much larger “thing” that passed by my mic.

      I know a bear expert, so I’ll send him the recording to find out what he thinks.

  2. Thanks. Not a bird watcher or necessarily a bird lover but, I have my moments. I listened to all your recordings and there were 4 that I really enjoyed, especially the Brown-Crested Flycatcher but most of all The Great Horned Owl was my favorite.
    I just wanted you to know. I appreciate your time and effort and you are way lucky that Bear or whatever it was wasn’t a 100 feet the other way in your camp. Something to be grateful for.

    Thanks again,

  3. Mr. Elliott, That was amazing what wonderful experiences you’ve had and are having. And your writing about it is so eloquent. Thank you for sharing , Mary

  4. Thank you for the amazing work you do.
    If more people would listen, the world would be a better place!

  5. Thank you! Having visited the canyon since 2002, I thoroughly enjoyed the article, photographs and particularly the recordings; such a treat! After visiting the canyon once, it beckons one to return which my husband and I do at least annually. We were introduced to the canyon years back by the original owner of Aravaipa Farms B&B Carol Steele who was able to share the beauty of Aravaipa through her lovely establishment which we shared with family and friends. Lang captured the beauty of the canyon and all that nature offers. I love it and will share it widely!

  6. A good friend sent these to me on the anniversary of my husband’s death…I love focusing not only on your nature sounds, but your lyrical descriptions as well…true gifts. And, as I’ve been listening, a Flicker began drumming on the metal chimney cap in the room where I’m sitting…first time I’ve heard him since last year! Co-incidence? Maybe…but not to me!
    Thank you.

  7. As a biologist, I’d advise you to think before posting descriptive information regarding the location of sensitive species such as the southwestern willow fly catcher, and the Mexican spotted owl. The locations are generally considered sensitive information, and not openly shared with the public in order to protect the species. It’s cool to get the recordings, but just consider not sharing such descriptive locations with the general public. Thanks

  8. Mr. Elliott — Mark Haberstich sent me the link to your recordings. What a treat! I’ve been taking my Garrett College students to Arizona for spring break since the mid-1990s. We’ve stayed at the east end of Aravaipa and worked with Mark since 1997, and will be heading back out this coming week. It was wonderful to sit here in the snowy Appalachians of western Maryland and be transported to a spot along gurgling Aravaipa Creek, under the shade of the cottonwoods, willows, and sycamores, and listen to the familiar soundscape I’ve grown to love. Although your recordings were made later in the spring than when we visit, many of the birds you’ve captured are present when we’re there. I believe the “drink-your-teeeee” song in the “Dawn at Willow Narrows” recording is actually a Bewick’s wren. Those guys really fooled me during our first few visits out there. They’re ubiquitous in the brush along the creek. The song of the Aravaipa birds is much simpler than what you hear in most recordings and birding apps, which must have come from birds elsewhere in the species’ range. They also make a characteristic “wer-derp” call that you hear frequently out there. And the warbling vireo in the “Hawk’s Lair” recording is a Bell’s vireo, another fairly common bird in brushy streamside vegetation. Thanks so much for lending your talents to The Nature Conservancy and sharing these sounds with us!