SALT LAKE CITY
Rattlesnakes aren't to be trifled with, but if you're trying to collect the sounds of every creature in the West that slithers, hops, flies or flops, distance isn't a luxury you can afford.
"You get yourself in some strange situations," said Jeff Rice, a soft-spoken University of Utah research librarian who's trying to create the first comprehensive -- and free to the public -- archive of natural sounds in the West.
Minutes later he was squatting in the hills above the city training his lightweight parabolic mic-rophone toward a Great Basin rattlesnake a few feet away.
The snake, caught by wildlife agents earlier in the day in a backyard, offered a few doubtful quiet moments.
Finally, though, it let loose a long dry rattle, both eerie and fascinating, that unmistakably said keep away.
The recording, reduced to a short clip, will be the next added to the Western Soundscape Archive, www.westernsoundscape.org, a Web-based sound clearinghouse headquartered at the University of Utah library.
Though it's just a year old, the site already has more than 800 recordings. The goal is to catalog the nearly 1,200 species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians that roam 11 Western states, including California. It'll also feature "ambient soundscapes" from wild places across the region.
The sounds will be available to teachers, scientists and anyone else interested in hearing the odd murmurings of a sage grouse, javelina, Columbia spotted frog or mountain-dwelling moose.
The landscape recordings could also provide important audio snapshots that could be used for comparison later when trying to understand how animals respond to encroaching subdivisions, oil and gas development, a warming climate or other changes.
Many of the sound clips on the archive have been donated by others. Some, Rice had to go get himself.
He has hunkered down in Utah's remote San Rafael Swell to record the chatter of beavers; logged hours near Nevada's Lake Mead listening to relict leopard frogs and visited a laboratory to tape the Northern grasshopper mouse, a pint-size rodent that perches on its hind legs to offer a shrill whistle of warning.
In the field, animals tend to be most active in early mornings and evenings.
"You leave at 2 a.m. and find yourself wandering around bleary-eyed in a swamp," he said. "Sometimes you wonder what you're doing."
Geneva-based World Conservation Union estimates that one in three amphibian species in the world is at risk for extinction.
Rice, 41, wants to capture as many as possible on tape before they're gone. "It's very much a race against time," he said.
He figures the library has recordings of about 75 percent of the 53 frog and toad species in the West. It has about 70 percent of the birds and dozens of mammal and reptile recordings.
The recordings, even heard from the safety of a desktop, can stir something primal in the DNA, a sudden flight response, for instance, in the case of the rattlesnake.
"Responses to those kinds of sounds are almost reflexive," Fristrup said.
He said Rice's archive could help people learn what animals they're hearing in the wild, even if they can't see them.
"Most of us learn to ignore what our ears tell us and focus on the task at hand because we live in really noisy habitat," Fristrup said. "But in some ways hearing is the most alerting sense, directing us to things that matter."