Jeff Rice collects nature's noises

  • Jeff Rice records the sound of a Great Basin rattler.

    Douglas C. Pizak, AP
 

Some people collect butterflies. Others amass dolls or antique cars. Armed with a microphone and recorder, Jeff Rice chases the West's natural sounds -- from the hooting of owls to the buzzing of Great Basin rattlesnakes.

A relative newcomer to nature field recording, Rice worked in audio production for about 15 years. As a radio producer, he was always interested in ambient sound, "because it brought a lot of richness and sense of place to the stories." After receiving an MFA in electronic music and recording media from the Bay Area's Mills College, Rice began experimenting in the studio, and then went out into the field more and more often.

Rice soon began to specialize in animal sounds, an interest he attributes to his childhood in western Washington. "At night, at certain times of year, my neighborhood turned into a seething jungle of frog choruses. I remember hearing all this pulsing sound coming from the woods up the street."

As his skills and collection grew, Rice, now living in Seattle, realized that the West lacked a comprehensive online archive of wildlife sounds. After approaching the University of Utah and receiving a $350,000 federal grant that the university matched, Rice helped found the J. Willard Marriott Library's Western Soundscape Archive in November 2007 (http://westernsoundscape.org).

The archive now represents close to 800 species -- amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals -- even some invertebrates. Scientists, educators, students and nature enthusiasts can download podcasts or stream audio files free of charge. Rice sees the loss of species and habitats as a driving force behind his work. "We are experiencing a new 'silent spring' across the globe and in our own backyards," he says. "Not only is it a marker of what we're losing on an important ecological level, but it's also a loss of our heritage."

Rice keeps a checklist of the Western species still missing from his archives and tries to fill the gaps methodically, soliciting the help of fellow sound aficionados and federal agencies. If he can't track down a particular recording, he packs up his equipment and heads into the backcountry.

On a typical recording day, Rice gets up well before sunrise, when many animals are most active. He may have scouted the location -- a desert waterhole, a forest grove, a wetland -- the day before. At his camp, he gets his equipment from his SUV and, with a look of intense concentration on his face, he walks out to the site. There, he unfolds his tripod and tucks a microphone inside a furry-looking windsock to muffle wind noise. He jots down the time, date, location, temperature, weather and elevation. He then plugs in the mike, puts on headphones and awaits the day's surprises. "Basically, every time you turn on a tape recorder you get something new," the soft-spoken Rice says. "That's literally true, and not just from a personal, metaphorical standpoint."

Some species require extra patience to track down. Rice particularly remembers stalking short-eared owls: "I got a couple of hours of wind noise and maybe five seconds of owl shrieks." At other times, Rice sets up his recorder opportunistically and gets lucky when "nature just wanders by." Once, while checking his tapes in the studio, he heard a strange call, "kind of like a kazoo" -- a mountain goat had walked past the microphone. Rice got his Great Basin rattler recording from a snake that the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources had captured: "They poured it out of a bucket and I recorded it." Generally, however, good planning makes for good sound. Time of day, season, proximity to water sources and human noise -- almost ubiquitous now -- all must be considered.

Rice's work has changed his perception of the West. "It sounds trite, but much of what goes on in our environment isn't readily seen. Hearing offers a 360-degree survey of an area. I'll hear a lot of birds, especially, before I will see them," he says.  "It's also taught me to pay more attention to the seasons. Animal sounds vary greatly as the seasons change, and getting a good recording depends a lot on timing. A Columbia spotted frog, for example, will only call for a short time when the conditions are right. If you hear an animal sound, you should feel lucky because it is very ephemeral."

The print version of this article incorrectly stated that Jeff Rice lived in Salt Lake City. He lives in Seattle.