Prairie Marsh Dawn

photo of prairie potholes from USFWS

Some of the richest and most varied North American soundscapes can be heard in prairie marshes and potholes in the Missouri Couteau region of North Dakota, not far from the Woodworth Field Station of the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center. This area is chockfull of pothole lakes and ponds and is home to dense populations of ducks, rails, bitterns, and marsh-dwelling songbirds such as marsh wrens and yellow-headed blackbirds. I captured the following recording way back in 1992, in a marsh at the edge of a lake just north of Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge. You won’t believe your ears:

Dawn in a prairie marsh, 4:50 am, 17 May 1993, just north of Chase Lake NWR near Woodworth, North Dakota. Recorded by Lang Elliott.

photo of Lang ElliottThis is a knock-your-socks-off recording, at least in the sense of conveying the hyperactivity of prairie pothole marshes in the spring. It is an engaging soundscape that demands one’s attention. It is not exactly relaxing, though it is supremely immersive. Perhaps it is not a recording I would go to sleep to, but it is certainly one that I would play time and again, just to witness the extraordinary spectacle of sound.

Listen for the pumping call of the bittern, whinny-like outbursts of sora, the incessant chatter of marsh wrens, duck sounds galore, and the flight calls of the willet (in the second half of the recording). In the original, which is over 30 minutes long, there are some very loud sound events that I’ve either removed or else reduced in volume. For example, I’ve lowered the loud outbursts of the sora rails as well as the loudest calls of the willet.

Please let me know what you think of this recording. While I do not intend to feature it in a soundscape title designed just to relax, I would not hesitate to include it in a compendium of prairie recordings, alongside other amazing prairie sound-spectacles (such as the whirrs, grunts, and groans of lekking grouse and prairie chickens).


  1. These are the birds I hear (including the ones you already mentioned): Gadwalls, Mallards, a Blue-Winged Teal, a Northern Pintail, Northern Shovelers, Redheads, American Bitterns, a Virginia Rail, Soras, a Willet, Wilson’s Snipes, Marsh Wrens, Yellow-Headed Blackbirds, and a chorus frog (whichever type if found in North Dakota).

    I have a friend who went duck hunting in North Dakota because it is near the Missouri flyway. This year, I heard a Least Bittern at Lake Templane in Centreville, but I so far have never heard an American Bittern.

  2. What a wonderful recording. I love listening to this habitat and it’s creatures. Magical is an apt description.

  3. Suzanne got it right.
    It probably is not right for relaxation, but for masking background noise it would be good. I would fall asleep to it.
    Long time ago, I had a recording of spring peepers that I would turn on to fall asleep to, I did one winter’s night, bu woke up before it shut off. I had no idea where I was!

    The series so far is outstanding!

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