Listening to Winged Wildlife in the Arctic Refuge

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Audio engineer Martyn Stewart describes his experiences recording birds at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Millions of birds sing 24 hours a day there during the breeding season, and the refuge explodes with life — a sharp contrast to reports by some who hope to drill for oil in the area, who say the refuge is a frozen wasteland. Jeff Rice of the Hearing Voices radio collective has a profile of Stewart and his work.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

News, news, the heck with news. Let's go outdoors: Alaska, which really is the great outdoors, but getting cold these days, the birds migrating to the lower 48. And that's why producer Martin Stewart went in June. He was going to record birds. He set out four microphones over a 500-yard area in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge back in June, and this is what he got.

(Soundbite of birds)

MARTIN STEWART: Just recording up is a joy, you know, it's just fantastic. Twenty-four hours of light and you've got these fantastic sounds.

(Soundbite of birds)

STEWART: At any given time you've got birdsound all around you.

(Soundbite of birds)

STEWART: I was in a tent, in a yellow tent, and I felt like I was sleeping in an embryo, as inside an egg.

(Soundbite of birds)

STEWART: It seemed to be that when the sun went further north, it never actually set behind any of the mountains. It was still in the sky, so it was circling all the time, 24 hours a day. But from 12:00 o'clock to 6:00 o'clock in the morning I found was the most dense part of the day for the sound.

(Soundbite of birds)

STEWART: The plane lands, drops you off, leaves you with all the equipment and then off they go. And then you quickly realize that where you are, the chances of seeing anybody, you know, it's so remote. Probably on the second day I walked out with all my equipments across the tundra. The tundra is very difficult to walk on. You know, you walk in with these boots and you've got these tufts of grass and stuff in you. You really do find difficult footing.

So I'd walk a mile away from my base camp and drop my microphones and the recorders and the rest of it, and then over the horizon comes Mr. Grizzly Bear and I realize that I can't stay there to record. So I've got to walk back another difficult mile so that Mr. Bear can get out of the way. You know, you just get out of the way because you're basically standing in his dinner plate.

(Soundbite of birds)

STEWART: It's kind of takes you back to your primal self, in a way. You can hear your, your heart beating. You can feel your pulse running through. You can basically feel your blood going up and down your arms. It's an incredible feeling. I've never felt like that in any other country I've been to. It's like being in a dream and - but there's nobody there to wake you up. And so this dream just carries on and on and on until you decide that you've had enough and you go away.

CHADWICK: Martin Stewart contributes to the new book Arctic Wings. It features a CD of his recordings. And thanks to Jeff Rice of Hearing Voices, the Hearing Voices Radio Collective.

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