The King of the Early Birds


Dawn at Big Springs, Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge

Dawn at Big Springs, Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge

Divisions:   Driving down Big Springs Road in early June, I was determined to out “early-rise” the early bird that I missed during the previous week’s recording trip.  That morning the alarm went off at 1:30 a.m., and I thought that I should have just stayed up – not gone to bed at all.  The previous week, I arrived at sunrise and heard a bird finishing the coda of its dawn proclamation.  This week it was still completely dark when I set mics and started the recorder.  As the mountains along the eastern border of the refuge became silhouetted by the faintest hint of sunrise, somewhere in the dark stand of mesquite trees a Western Kingbird sang the welcoming notes of the new day.  Far off in the distant Big Springs marsh, a raucous chorus of bullfrogs backed the early bird’s morning session.  This time, I stepped far away from my mics as not to disturb the unfolding scene, retreated to my truck and sat on the tailgate.  It was the most quiet and serene moment that I can remember in all my time at Ash Meadows.  It was a little after 4 a.m., far too early for most of the world to be awake, and for an hour or so, I felt as if I had the whole world to myself.  After sunrise, the remaining variety of birds awoke thus supplying the dawn with its chorus and officially commencing the day.  The Western Kingbird’s first song of the day bridged the divide between day and night, but as it became light enough to see, curiously, he changed his tune.  As the dividing moment between day and night faded, my imagination started noticing other divisions represented by the Big Springs area of the refuge.  The road itself clearly marked a boundary between a wetland marsh on the east side and dry-land bosque on the west.  On the east side of the road, I saw wildness, and on the west, I saw an old homestead.  Perhaps the road marked another division between the area’s natural state as a wildlife refuge and the failed attempt by a homesteader to eke out a living in an exceptionally harsh environment.

The audio track for this post represents the two environs of Big Springs.  First, is the dawn song of the lone Western Kingbird, followed by a chorus of his avian neighbors in the mesquite bosque and closes with quiet, subtle sounds of the Big Springs marsh.

Thankfully, what you won’t hear are activities associated with the nearby zeolite mine and processing plant.  It’s quiet on most Sunday mornings, but it’s difficult to make a clean recording of the Big Springs’ soundscape during the week.  Early homesteaders were never very successful at Ash Meadows, but the power of 20th century industrial machinery changed the game for investors outside of the area.  I imagined another division between man and nature.  St.Cloud Mining (as in St.Cloud, Minnesota – headquarters for the mine’s owners) is one of two commercial entities still operating at the refuge.  The other is a church camp.  St.Cloud mines zeolite, a naturally occurring clay noted for its absorption abilities.  The mineral is used in various industrial mixtures to absorb spills at nuclear power plants, clean up crashes at NASCAR races, and provide an essential ingredient for common, household kitty litter.  Looking at our pet cat, napping in a patch of sunshine by the kitchen door, I’m divided by a tinge of guilt. Would there be a better environment for birds, and would my recordings sound richer, were it not for kitty litter?


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