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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Swamp Songs

Air Date: Week of

A pig frog. (Photo: Lang Elliott ©)

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia is made up of almost 700 square miles of wetlands and home to a wide variety of plants and animals. As nature recorder Lang Elliott tells host Steve Curwood, he got up close and personal with his microphone to the wildlife at Okefenokee and he shares some of his sounds.


CURWOOD: Swamps have a reputation for being dark and mysterious. But many of them are complex ecosystems filled with large numbers of animals and plants. The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia is one such place. At almost 400,000 acres, it’s one of the largest wetlands in the United States, and it’s the largest peat-producing bog swamp in North America. The swamp is one of Lang Elliott’s favorites. He’s a nature recordist and photographer, and he joins me now. Lang, welcome back to Living on Earth.

ELLIOTT: It’s a pleasure being here, Steve.

CURWOOD: Lang, now you recorded the sounds we’re hearing at dawn in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. What do you see as you look out into the early morning swamp?

ELLIOTT: Well, this recording was made at the edge of a large wet prairie. You’re looking out over a vast open area that superficially looks like an African savanna with patches of trees. But those are actually patches of bald Cyprus, and all the open areas is very wet. If you tried walking out there you’d be over your head in water almost instantly.

CURWOOD: Why swamps? What attracts you to them?

ELLIOTT: I love swamps because the soundscape is so remarkable. You have frogs going, you have various wading birds making sounds, you have an abundance of sounds coming from songbirds in the shrubs and patches of trees along the edges of the swamp. It’s the North American equivalent of being like in a tropical rainforest kind of situation, at least soundscape-wise.

A pig frog. (Photo: Lang Elliott ©)

CURWOOD: What did you see when you were out there? Or record, I should ask.

ELLIOTT: Well, a variety of things. I was along a boardwalk on the east side of Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, and one of the first things I recorded was some sound coming from a thicket of shrubs next to the boardwalk. And it’s the call of the yellow-billed cuckoo, which is a relative of the common cuckoo of Europe that goes “cuckoo, cuckoo.” But this one goes “caup, caup, caup, caup.”


ELLIOTT: Other sounds included the call and the drum of a pileated woodpecker. Pileated woodpeckers really love southern swamps, where they nest in hollows or dig out their nest in rotting tree trunks. They’re a very common species in southern swamps.


ELLIOTT: I love that call. It sort of sounds like something Woody Woodpecker would do.

CURWOOD: (Laughs)

ELLIOTT: Another interesting bird in the Okefenokee wet prairies is the Sandhill Crane, which has a marvelous clamoring, guttural call.


CURWOOD: That’s an interesting call. Is that a male or female?

ELLIOTT: It’s actually both sexes. That is the unison call of the Sandhill Crane given by mated pairs during the breeding season. And one bird gives a lower, guttural call and the other gives a higher call, a higher sort of doubled-call, and it sounds like “ghroo ka-ka ghroo ka-ka ghroo ka-ka ghroo ka-ka.”


CURWOOD: Now, Sandhill Cranes mate for life?

ELLIOTT: Yes they do. They have what’s called “perennial monogamy,” meaning they are monogamous, but they reform their pair bonds each spring.


CURWOOD: Now when I think swamp, I think gator. Alligator.

ELLIOTT: Yes, and there are lots of alligators in Okefenokee. There’s some really big ones. And the recording I got was actually along that boardwalk. It was about a seven-foot-long alligator. Not too big, but, you know, one I wouldn’t want to stick my hand in front of its nose. It wasn’t really making any noise, so I sort of poked at it with my shotgun microphone. I didn’t actually touch it, I just sort of waved it out in front of it.


ELLIOTT: And it responded with a loud snort followed by this hissing noise. It was quite a remarkable sound.


CURWOOD: Sounds like somebody trying to start an engine that won’t go.

ELLIOTT: Right, yeah, it does have that, especially the second part of that snort where you hear the vibration in the call.


CURWOOD: Now we couldn’t go to the swamps without having a bunch of frogs, too, right?

ELLIOTT: That’s right.

CURWOOD: What are some of the most prominent ones there?

ELLIOTT: Well, the most prominent frog, I believe, in Okefenokee, the one that everyone hears – you can hear it day and night – is the pig frog, which grunts like a pig.


ELLIOTT: It actually looks like a bullfrog, about the size of a bullfrog, and some people mistake them and even their sounds for bullfrogs. But they’re actually a frog of southern swamps. Very common all through the South.

CURWOOD: I understand you got up close and personal with one of these frogs.

ELLIOTT: Oh yes. Very often if you capture one – and you don’t have to hurt it or squeeze it – but it will give a distress call that’s really quite a remarkable sound.


ELLIOTT: Sounds like he’s gagging.

CURWOOD: It sounds very sad to me, like he wants his moooooooooom.

ELLIOTT: Somehow I doubt if he’s calling for his mom. (Laughs)

CURWOOD: Lang Elliott travels far and wide to record the natural world with his digital recorder and camera. His new book coming out this fall is called “Songs of Wild Birds,” and it’ll include a CD. Lang, thanks for joining us.

ELLIOTT: It was a pleasure being here, Steve.



mole cricket

common nighthawk


barred owl

night chorus of insects and chuckwills

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

A map of Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (pdf)


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