Reviewed by Gordon Edgar This year John Neville releases yet another title in the ever-growing series. I did a little collateral reading to boost my reviewer's qualifications and I will start by sharing my newly acquired knowledge..
Grasslands are one of the main types of biome and form where low rainfall favours grasses over the growth of trees. They are found on every continent under different names and as everyone knows, in North America the temperate grasslands are known as `The Prairies'. Before the Europeans arrived, the plains carried a `fire-and-grazing' sub-climax vegetation, grazed by herds of bison and pronghorns, which were hunted by predators such as wolves and coyotes. Wildfires known as the `red buffalo' were important in the scheme of things as native plants, with their energy stored in underground root systems, were better adapted to fire than shrubby invaders. The European settlers changed all that and converted the prairie grasslands into farms and ranches. The `long grass' prairies were ploughed and converted to croplands for cereals, while further west in the drier `short grass' districts, they were used as rangeland for cattle.
Needless to say, unsustainable overgrazing by domestic livestock has degraded the ecosystem. A few remnants escaped destruction are now protected in places such as Flint Hills, Kansas and the Tall Grass Preserve in Manitoba where some of the audio tracks were recorded.
On CD#1, we are told that 34 grassland bird species are in serious steady decline and the album features many rare recordings. For example, the Loggerhead Shrike is an endangered species on the open plains; a victim of habitat loss and pesticides, like so much prairie wildlife.
Some of the bird species such as the Barn Swallow and Ring-necked Pheasant are familiar to Europeans. However, I was puzzled by the Long-eared Owl track and I find that this species is polytypic. I happen to know that this recording was made by Catherine Thexton in Manitoba, which is where the ranges of the eastern wilsonianus and the western tuftsi races meet and overlap. Likewise, Black-billed Magpies are noisy critters, as John observes but they sound new to me. The birds in my garden are of the nominate race, Pica pica, while John's birds recorded in Saskatchewan would be designated Pica pica hudsonia. The Winter Wren is also polytypic with numerous races world-wide. I started investigating but the exercise triggered an attack of dyslexia!
The Great Plains are not all rolling grasslands, or boring `fly-over' territory but comprises a mosaic of habitats supporting a diverse range of species. Indeed most of the tracks in this album were recorded in the associated wetlands, forests and cliffs. There are some splendid sounds on offer and I feel bound to mention the Ruffed Grouse. John's `close-miked' recording of a male `drumming' was the best I have heard; a superb example of instrumental sound. The wing-beating really does sound like a `flivver' starting up.
I liked the amusing `squelcher-belcher' sobriquet of the American Bittern and the quirky voice of the Pied-billed Grebe. Once heard, never forgotten!
The grassland species are the real focus of this album. They include various grouse species, prairie chickens, numerous `sparrows' which are Emberizids, and meadowlarks, which are Icterids. Incidentally, the emblematic Western Meadowlark had adapted to farming and is the `official bird' of six US States.
I was intrigued by the gurgling sounds from the Brown-headed Cowbird and the gentle song of McCowan's Longspur's was `easy listening'. Also, I will mention the lekking calls of the Sage Grouse with the curious `popping' sounds from their inflated air sacs. As usual, John is not fixated on the birds and we hear samples of Coyotes and Prairie Dogs, condemned as `pesky varmints' by the ranchers!
John sticks to his customary approach, introducing every species with a spoken explanation. I like this format as I can listen without constant referral to a written track list. The double album is good on content, featuring 170 bird species, 4 mammals and 2 amphibians. Naturally, the tracks are quite short. I was impressed with the quality of the recordings and all the audio was very clean. Evidently, John's collaboration with Traz Damji, his sound engineer is bearing fruit. It was a pleasure to listen to this album and the quality gets better with every new release. He is not finished yet, I predict!