Science

National Park Nature Walks, Episode 5: A Northwoods Voyage


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

Today, we explore the Northwoods.

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 northernmost reaches of the contiguous United States, to one of the most remote parks in the National Park Service. We’re headed into wilderness to explore Voyaguers National Park on the Minnesota/Canada border. Voyaguers is located at the southernmost edge of the expansive boreal ecosystem, which extends hundreds of miles north to Canada’s Hudson Bay. We’ll start the morning at camp, coffee in hand, enjoying the solitude and serenity of dawn next to a backcountry lake. Using a trail shared by moose, bears, lynx, and wolves, we’ll then make our way to a decades old beaver dam, where we’ll settle into the rhythm of birdsong during late morning. Let’s go for a walk.

Some of the species in this episode produce sounds that can’t be heard with normal computer speakers. So you get the most immersive experience possible, slip on a pair of headphones before settling into today’s journey.

Welcome to the North Woods. This is what Minnesotans call the southern boreal ecosystem, which is where we’ve found ourselves this morning.

After having canoed and hiked in a few miles yesterday, we spent lst night camping under a star-filed sky, listening to the sounds of Agnes Lake as we drifted in and out of conciousness.

The north woods is my favorite place on earth and is pure magic to me. My introduction to it was an 8-day solo canoe trip that carried me 50 miles through stands of mixed-deciduous and conifer trees, spruce bogs, and endless miles of meandering river wetlands. On that trip, I saw countless bird species, otters, beavers, moose, and deer. I also shared the landscape with wolves, black bear, bobcat, and lynx.

Voyageurs National Park might be the best place in the lower 48 to get an up close and personal introduction to the boreal ecosystem. Winters here are long and frigid, dropping to as low as -40F. Summers, though short and filled with biting insects, are something to truly be experienced for anyone seeking a real adventure. There is solitude for days, and the sounds of the land are unlike anything most people have ever experienced.

Let’s top off our coffee and grab a seat at the edge of the lake, and watch the sun come up. I want you to experience the north woods in a way I have so many times before.

The first sound that really stands out to me are those melancholy whistles. 

Like this: **whistle** 

They’re from White-throated Sparrows. Americans say the sparrows are singing “poor Sam, peabody, peabody, peabody”. But if you talk to Canadians, they think it sounds like “Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.

Either way, this song is one of the most characteristic sounds of this place.

Hear that glugging sound?

Right there!

It’s coming from an American Bittern. It’s a large, very secretive heron that lives in wetlands and edges of lakes like this. 

Their camouflage makes them practically invisible, but their calls can be heard from a long way off. I kind of think they sound like an old farm pump.

Did you hear, or,    kind of   feel that? Like it was in your chest? It was a low-pitched, quick thumping?  

It’s from a Ruffed Grouse. And somewhere in the forest behind us, a male is perched on a log, making this sound by beating his wings against his body, faster and faster, building to a crescendo.  He’ll do it all morning, trying to attract a mate. I’m sure we’ll hear it again. 

Huh, now there is my favorite sound in the world. It’s a Common Loon. There’s a breeding pair out on the lake. See’em? Listen hear what they have to say.

Because of climate change, these iconic birds of Minnesota and the north woods might be pushed north out of the state and most of the U.S. by mid century.

Hear those peeps? They’re coming from an aptly named Spring Peeper. It’s a tiny orange frog. 

By itself this male isn’t too loud, but at night when males call together, the chorus can be deafening. 

Huh, Hear that? Look up! A Blackburnian Warbler landed above us. 

There! His neon orange face and throat are unreal. He glows like a flame up there. So cool!

Warblers like this Blackburnian are a favorite group of birds for birdwatchers. They’re so colorful! I think they look like christmas ornaments in the spruce trees up here. 

Voyageurs has the highest concentration of breeding warblers anywhere in the country. We’ll probably see and hear many more today.

Here’s our spring peeper again.

There’s the grouse! Maybe we’ll get to see him from the trail later.

Whoa, did you hear that drumming?

It’s a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. It’s a kind of woodpecker. 

There! They have this unique way of drumming on trees. It starts off fast and then slows way down. Listen again, but more closely this time. 

That rattling song is from another sparrow. A Swamp Sparrow. I can’t imagine being able to move my jaw that fast.

Here come some Canada Geese. It actually looks like they might fly right over us.

Pretty cool!

Well, my coffee is gone. Let’s stretch our legs and head up the trail into the forest. I have a cool place I want to take you. 

Listen to the trees creaking in the wind. I wonder how many other people or animals have listened to this same sound over the years? 

Huh!

That Ruffed Grouse is so close now! Did you feel it?

Man, I love being here. Let’s keep going.

I’ve brought you to this beaver dam because it’s such an important part of this place. This particular dam might be a century old and is about 100 ft across and almost 8 ft tall. It’s crazy to think that beavers built this, one stick at a time.

Dams like this have honestly transformed the entire area, creating this huge pond and surrounding wetlands for so many other species to live. It’s not a stretch to think that without beavers, Voyageurs would be a very different place.

Speaking of. Did you hear that? There’s a beaver watching us right now. That tail smack let’s other beavers in the area know we’re here and potentially dangerous. Let’s see if it does that again.

Just listen to how much bird song there is here. That’s partly because of this beaver dam. 

‘Thief’! That’s a Blue Jay calling.

Huh, here’s a new warbler. A chestnut-sided warbler. Listen again for its “pleased, pleased, pleased to meetchu!” song.

Did you hear it? Such a beautiful bird! That chestnut color is so rich it seems unreal.

Hear that “weesa weesa weesa weesa”? Kind of like a squeaky wheel?

Right there! It’s Black and white warbler. I think this is the most unique looking warbler. Kind of like a zebra creeping along branches and tree trunks.

(**laughing**) Here’s yet another warbler species. This one is a Black throated-green warbler. Listen for the “zee zee zee zee zee zoo zee”.

There! Look for him high up in the canopy above us.

It’s getting a little windy. Usually this causes birds to stop singing as much. Hopefully we can still hear little more.

Yes! I love this bird! It’s a winter wren. Listen to how long its song is. 

We heard it’s relative, the Pacific wren, back on the Oregon coast. 

I can see this male on the dam. He’s sitting atop that tall branch sticking up about halfway across. 

See him?

The White-throated sparrow is real close now. Remember, “Poor Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody”?

I could listen to these guys all day long. It’s so beautiful.

Well, let’s head back to camp and make some lunch. I hope you’ve enjoyed our hike today and felt some of the magic that I feel every time I’m here. Thank you for joining me. I’ll see you on our next National Park Nature Walk. 


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