BirdCast: You Can Now Forecast the Migration of Birds Across the U.S. Just Like the Weather

We talk about the weather more often than we talk about most things, other natural phenomena included. We certainly talk about the weather more often than we talk about birds, much to the disappointment of ornithological enthusiasts. This could be down to the comparative robustness of weather prediction, both as a tradition and as a daily technological presence in our lives. We can hardly avoid seeing the weather forecast, but when was the last time you checked the bird forecast? Such a thing does, in fact, exist, though it’s only come into existence recently, in the form of Birdcast, which provides “real-time predictions of bird migrations: when they migrate, where they migrate, and how far they will be flying.”

Developed by Colorado State University and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, BirdCast offers both live bird migration maps and bird forecast migration maps for the United States. “These forecasts come from models trained on the last 23 years of bird movements in the atmosphere as detected by the US NEXRAD weather surveillance radar network,” says BirdCast’s web site.




Unprecedented in both the kind of information they provide and the detail in which they provide it, “these bird migration maps represented the culmination of a 20-year long vision, so too the beginnings of new inspiration for the next generation of bird migration research, outreach and education, and application.”

You can learn more about the development and workings of BirdCast in the recorded webinar below, featuring research associate Adriaan Dokter and Julia Wang, leader of the Lights Out project, which aims to get Americans spending more time in just such a state. “Every spring and fall, billions of birds migrate through the US, mostly under the cover of darkness,” says its section of BirdCast’s site. “This mass movement of birds must contend with a dramatically increasing but still largely unrecognized threat: light pollution.” The goal is “turning off unnecessary lighting during critical migration periods,” and with spring having begun last weekend, we now find ourselves in just such a period. Luckily, our fine feathered friends shouldn’t be disturbed by the glow of the BirdCast map on your screen. View live BirdCast maps here.

via Kottke

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Watch “The “Art of Flying,” a Short Film Capturing the Wondrous Murmurations of the Common Starling

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How Sounds Are Faked For Nature Documentaries: Meet the Artists Who Create the Sounds of Fish, Spiders, Orangutans, Mushrooms & More

We think of nature documentaries as primarily visual works. As well we probably should, given the countless, mostly dull and uncomfortable hours spent in the field they demand of their photography crews. But what comes to mind when we imagine the sound of nature documentaries — apart, of course, from the voice of David Attenborough? Listen closely during the breaks in his narration of such hit nature series as Planet Earth or Our Planet, and you’ll hear all manner of sounds: the sound of sharks swimming, of orangutans chewing, of spiders shooting their webs, of mushrooms sprouting. Hang on — mushrooms sprouting?

Nature documentaries, as narrator Abby Tang says in the Insider video above, are full of “sounds that would either be impossible to capture, or ones that are straight-up made up.” In this they differ little from scripted films, whose actual shoots usually manage to record only the actors’ dialogue, if that.




Working in the wild, far indeed from any studio, nature documentarians “might actually be shooting a subject matter that’s across a valley, or they’ll capture objects normally too small to have a registered noise to it.” Hence the need for a category of professionals previously featured here on Open Culture: foley artists, those inventive creators of footsteps, door-knocks, punches, sword-unsheathings, and all the other sounds viewers expect to hear.

Here foley artist Richard Hinton demonstrates his methods for breathing sonic life into a range of nature scenes. A shoal of mackerel? Old magnetic audio tape sloshed around in a tub of water. The vibrations of a spiderweb? A slinky, held perilously close to the microphone. The northern lights? A pair of cymbals and a set of wind chimes. Often, just the right sound emerges from those of two distinct objects layered together, a principle known to foley artists since the early days of radio drama. In fact, though foley sounds today go through a fair bit of digital editing and processing to make them more convincing, the tools and techniques used to produce them have changed little since those days. The next time you watch a bear onscreen open its eyes after months-long hibernation, consider the possibility that you’re hearing an Englishman making noises with scraps of fur and his mouth.

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How the Sounds You Hear in Movies Are Really Made: Discover the Magic of “Foley Artists”

How the Sound Effects on 1930s Radio Shows Were Made: An Inside Look

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Explore a New Archive of 2,200 Historical Wildlife Illustrations (1916-1965): Courtesy of The Wildlife Conservation Society

Between the 1910s and the 1960s, a nature-lover with a sure artistic hand and a yen to see the world could have done much worse than signing on with the Wildlife Conservation Society. During those decades, when the WCS was known as the New York Zoological Society, its “Department of Tropical Research (DTR), led by William Beebe, conducted dozens of ecological expeditions across tropical terrestrial and marine locales,” says the organization’s web site. This long-term project brought together both scientists and artists, who “participated in field work and collaborated closely with DTR scientists to create their illustrations.”

Now the fruits of those artistic-scientific labors have come available in a free online archive containing “just over 2,200 digitized color and black-and-white illustrations of living and non-living specimens created by DTR field artists between 1916 and 1953.”




Their subjects include “mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects, marine invertebrates, plants, and fungi,” all originally found in places like “British Guiana (now Guyana), the Galápagos Islands, the Hudson Canyon, Bermuda, the Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern Pacific Ocean, Venezuela, and Trinidad.”

It was in Trinidad and Tobago that Beebe established his first ecological research station in 1916 — and where his long life and career came to an end more than 45 years later. “Although Beebe’s name is unfamiliar to most today, he was a celebrity scientist in his time,” says the WCS’ about page. “The DTR’s expeditions were covered by the popular press, Beebe’s accounts were bestsellers, and he and the DTR staff published hundreds of articles for both scientists and the general public.” Published in not just specialist media but National Geographic and The New York Times, their illustrations captured the color and movement of the natural realm with a detail and vividness that photography couldn’t.

“Ranging from depictions of single specimens to complex narrative images that show where and how animals lived,” these images are available in geographically and chronologically organized collections at the WCS’ online archive. As many as possible are credited to their artists — Isabel Cooper, Toshio Asaeda, George Alan Swanson, Frances Waite Gibson, and others — which ensures that this wealth of nature illustrations will do its part to not just renew interest in Beebe’s life and work but generate interest in those who entered into this adventurous collaboration with him. But then, Beebe himself articulated best what we can learn from appreciating these works of scientific art: “All about us, nature puts on the most thrilling adventure stories ever created, but we have to use our eyes.”

Enter the WCS archive here.

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Behold an Interactive Online Edition of Elizabeth Twining’s Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants (1868)

A Beautiful 1897 Illustrated Book Shows How Flowers Become Art Nouveau Designs

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A Starling Murmuration Magically Makes the Shape of a Bird

“After months of chasing these birds around Lough Ennell, Co. Westmeath [a lake in Ireland], James Crombie and I captured a unique display, writes Colin Hogg on YouTube. He’s referring to the video above, which–for one ever-brief moment–captures a murmuration of starlings forming the shape of a giant bird. It’s a pretty meta concept.

Crombie also captured the moment with a photograph that graced the cover of The Irish Times. View it here. The newspaper provides some interesting backstory on the video and photograph here.

Find more murmuration moments in the Relateds below.

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via Twisted Sifter

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Watch “The “Art of Flying,” a Short Film Capturing the Wondrous Murmurations of the Common Starling

De-Stress with 30 Minutes of Relaxing Visuals from Director Hayao Miyazaki

What does it mean to describe something as relaxing?

Most of us would agree that a relaxing thing is one that quiets both mind and body.

There’s scientific evidence to support the stress-relieving, restorative effects of spending time in nature.

Even go-go-go city slickers with a hankering for excitement and adventure tend to understand the concept of “relaxing” as something slow-paced and surprise-free.

HBO Max is touting its collection of animation master Hayao Miyazaki‘s films with 30 Minutes of Relaxing Visuals from Studio Ghibli, above.




Will all of us experience those 30 minutes as “relaxing”?

Maybe not.

Studio Ghibli fans may find themselves gripped by a sort of trivia contest competitiveness, shouting the names of the films that supply these pastoral visions—PonyoGrave of the Fireflies!! Howl’s Moving Castle!!! 

Fledgling animators may feel as if they’ve swallowed a stone—no matter how hard I try, nothing I make will approach the beauty on display here.

Sticklers—and there are plenty leaving comments on YouTube—may be irritated to realize that it’s actually not 30 but 6 minutes of visuals, looped 5 times.

Insomniacs (such as this reporter) may wish there was more looping and less content. The selected scenery is tranquil enough, but the clips themselves are brief, leading to some jarring transitions.

(One possible workaround for those hoping to lull themselves to sleep: fiddle with the speed settings. Played at .25 and muted, this compilation becomes very relaxing, much like artist Douglas Gordon’s video installation, 24 Hour Psycho. Leave the sound up and the lapping waves, gentle winds, and chuffing trains turn into something worthy of a slasher flick.

Finally, with so much attention focussed on Mars these days, we can’t help imagining what alien life forms might make of these earthly visions—ahh, this green, sheep-dotted pasture does lower my stress level… waitWTF was THAT!? Nothing on my home planet prepared me for the possibility of a monstrous winged house comprised of overgrown bagpipes and chicken legs lumbering through the countryside!

We concede that 30 Minutes of Relaxing Visuals from Studio Ghibli is a pleasant thing to have playing in the background as we wait for COVID restrictions to be lifted… but ultimately, you may find these 36 minutes of music from Studio Ghibli films more genuinely relaxing.

via Kottke

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Deadliest Garden in the World: Visit Alnwick’s Poison Garden in Northumberland, England

The mind reels to think of all the early humans who sacrificed themselves, unwittingly, in the prehistoric quest to learn which plants were safe to eat, which were suitable for healing, and which would maim or kill whoever who touched them. Even now, of course, the great majority of us rely on experts to make these distinctions for us. Unless we’re steeped in field training and/or folk knowledge, it’s safe to say most of us wouldn’t have a clue how to avoid poisoning ourselves in the wild.

This need not overly concern us on a visit to The Poison Garden, however. Nestled in manicured lanes at Alnwick Garden, “one of north England’s most beautiful attractions,” Natasha Geiling writes at Smithsonian, the Poison Garden includes such infamous killers as hemlock, Atropa belladonna (a.k.a. Deadly Nightshade), and Strychnos nux-vomica, the source of strychnine, in its collections. Just don’t touch the plants and you should be fine. Oh, and also, guides tell visitors, “don’t even smell them.” It should go without saying that tasting is out.




The Poison Garden is hardly the main attraction at Alnwick, in Northumberland. The castle itself was used as the setting for Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films. The 14 acres of controversial modern landscape gardens–designed by the flamboyant Jane Percy, Duchess of Northumberland–have become famous in their own right, in part for violating “England’s architectural patrimony,” a scandal you can read about here. (One garden designer and critic called it a “popular entertainment, the dream of a girl who looks like Posh and lives at Hogwarts.”)

The duchess responds to criticism of her extravagant designs with a shrug. “A lot of my ideas come from Las Vegas and Euro Disney,” she admits. The Poison Garden has a much more venerable source, the Orto Botanico in Padua, the oldest extant academic botanical garden, founded in 1545, with its own poison garden that dates to the time of the Medicis. After a visit, Percy “became enthralled with the idea of creating a garden of plants that could kill instead of heal,” writes Geiling. She thought of it, specifically, as “a way to interest children.” As the duchess says:

Children don’t care that aspirin comes from the bark of a tree. What’s really interesting is to know how a plant kills you, and how the patient dies, and what you feel like before you die.

What child doesn’t wonder about such things? And if we teach kids how to avoid poisonous plants, they can keep the rest of us alive should we have to retreat into the woods and become foragers again. The Poison Garden also grows plants from which common recreational drugs derive, like cannabis and cocaine, “as a jumping-off point for drug education,” Geiling points out.

Provided visitors follow the rules, the garden is safe, “although some people still occasionally faint from inhaling toxic fumes,” Alnwick Garden’s website warns. And while it’s designed to attract and educate kids, there’s a little something for everyone. Percy’s favorite poisonous plant, for example, Brugmansia, or angel’s trumpet, acts as a powerful aphrodisiac before it kills. She explains with glee that “Victorian ladies would often keep a flower from the plant on their card tables and add small amounts of its pollen to their tea to incite an LSD-like trip.” You can learn many other fascinating facts about plants that kill, and do other things, at Alnwick’s Poison Garden when the world opens up again.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Tune Into Tree.fm: An Online Radio Station That Streams the Soothing Sounds of Forests from Around the World

Image by Snežana Trifunović, via Wikimedia Commons

Walk into a forest. Stand perfectly still. Close your eyes. What do you hear? The sounds of birds, the rustling leaves, yes, yes…. But what’s that? And that? The forest is full of sounds you can’t identify! Curious sounds, far-away sounds, soothing sounds, sounds that are not the churning anxious wheels inside your head when you try to relax….

Experiencing ourselves around trees has several demonstrable benefits, as the science of forest bathing has taught us. Many of these have to do with visual, olfactory, and tactile pleasures. But we must not neglect the natural acoustic system all around us: an immersive experience in full 360-degree sound. Trees’ “vibratory energies reveal humanity’s many connections with forests,” writes David George Haskell at Scientific American.

Forests “are full of song.”




That’s all very well for people who can go outside. But if you’re locked down in a major city, say, or the office, or an ill-advised holiday gathering, and you feel cortisol levels rising, we’ve got you covered. Back in September, we featured Sounds of the Forest, a crowdsourced audio archive gathering sounds from forests all over the world. Now, these clips are streaming at Tree.fm, an online radio station for tree songs in stereo. 

Streams rill, frogs hoot, birds caw and squawk in chorus. And then there are the trees, each species possessed of its own voice, Haskell writes:

Gusts of wind sonify plant diversity. Oak’s voice is coarse-grained, throaty; maple’s is sandy and light. These differences have their origins in plant evolution and adaptation. Drought-resistant oak leaves are thicker, tougher than the water-hungry maple. The different sounds of trees on a dry mountain ridge and in a moist forested hollow speak to the particularities of the ecology of each place. Ponderosa pine sings sweetly in the winds of California, its long needles were, John Muir wrote, “finest music” and a “free, wing-like hum”. But in Colorado, pines have evolved shorter, stiffer needles to cope with heavy loads of snow and ice. There, the trees wail as their wiry needles harrow the wind.

Tree.fm “is a tool that gives you instant access to the sounds of the world’s forests,” Beth Skwarecki writes at Lifehacker. Many of those sounds, like the forests that produced them, are endangered, not only from the usual suspects but also the noise pollution of highways and housing developments. Listen to forest songs on repeat or hit “listen to a random forest” and be “transported to Madagascar to listen to some lemurs, or to Ghana to hear some peacefully rushing water, or to Russia, where a bird I’ve never heard of puts on a vocal performance.” This is good medicine. Discover the forest songs that best soothe your nervous system or delight ears at Tree.fm.

via Kottke

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Sounds of the Forest: A Free Audio Archive Gathers the Sounds of Forests from All Over the World

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Marina Abramović’s Method for Overcoming Trauma: Go to a Park, Hug a Tree Tight, and Tell It Your Complaints for 15 Minutes

One of the most renowned of Chinese poets, Du Fu, survived the devastating An Lushan rebellion that nearly brought down the Tang Dynasty and resulted in an incredible loss of life around the country. His poems are full of grief, as translator David Hinton notes. The opening of “Spring Landscape” contains “possibly the most famous line in Chinese poetry,” and a painful comment on humanity’s place in the natural world.

The country in ruins, rivers and mountains
continue. The city grows lush with spring.

Blossoms scatter tears for us, and all these
separations in a bird’s cry startle the heart.

The poem presents a tragic irony. Nature invites us in, seems to promise comfort and refuge. “Du Fu tells us that birds seem to cry for us, and blossoms weep,” writes Madeleine Thien at The New York Review of Books. But “of course, this is a fairy-tale view, and ‘in the knowledge of its falsity, heartbreaking.’”




Is nature indifferent to human suffering? It would seem so to the broken-hearted Confucian poet. But nature is not devoid of fellow feeling. Trees talk to each other, create social worlds and families, and communicate with the other plants and animals around them. Japanese researchers have shown that the oils trees secrete can measurably lower stress levels, reduce hostility and depression, and boost immunity. Trees may not weep, but they care.

Trees are also, says performance artist Marina Abramović in the short video above, “perfectly silent listeners”—a rare and valuable quality in times of stress. “They have intelligence. They have feelings.” And for this reason, a tree is the ideal companion when we need an ear.

You can complain to them. And I started this a long time ago when I was in the Amazon with the native Indians. You know, they will go to the Sequoia tree, which is one of the oldest on the planet. And they will make a dance for the tree. These dances for the tree are so incredibly moving an emotional. So I thought, Wow! Why don’t I create an exercise that really works for me?

Abramović’s tree therapy is one part of her “Abramović Method,” notes Paper, “a set of techniques that enables artists to get to higher states of consciousness.” She recommends it for anyone who’s reeling from the traumas of this year. In our own age of devastation and isolation, it certainly couldn’t hurt, and perhaps we know more than Du Fu did about how nature supports our emotional lives.

So “please, go to the park near you,” the artist implores. “Pick the tree you like. Hold the tree tight. Really tight. And just pour your heart into it. Complain to the tree for a minimum of 15 minutes. It’s the best healing that you can do.” Included in the video is a testimonial from an ex-rugby player, who found the Complaining to Trees method transformative. “There is something in it,” he says. “It’s almost like you become part of the tree as well.” Trees are not people. They don’t dispense advice. They listen and console in their own mysteriously ancient, silent way.

Related Content:  

The Secret Language of Trees: A Charming Animated Lesson Explains How Trees Share Information with Each Other

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How the Japanese Practice of “Forest Bathing”—Or Just Hanging Out in the Woods—Can Lower Stress Levels and Fight Disease

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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