Archives for posts with tag: cicadas

One sure way to know that the weather is getting cooler: the nights are quieter. No crickets, no cicadas, no frogs. Nothing that goes chirp in the night (except smoke detectors in need of new batteries).

Things that go bump in the night are another story…

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I’m beginning to think that the Perseid meteor shower is nothing but a hoax, an elaborate practical joke pulled off by astronomers to keep all of us awake all night.

Based on the promise of as many as 90 shooting stars per hour, Rachel and I stayed up well past our bedtime tonight to see if we could catch a few of them.  The viewing conditions were good, for a change:  no moon and only the occasional wisp of a cloud (there was complete cloud cover during last night’s peak).  In fact, the night was unusually ideal with warm temperatures, low humidity and—blissfully—very few insects.

But there were also very few meteors.

Part of the problem for us is that we have a limited view of the night sky.  We live in the woods and there is only a small clearing where the house, pool and garden are located.  The surrounding trees are very tall and their height is accentuated by a rise in grade to the north of our house.  Consequently, lying on a hammock by the pool, we were gazing upwards almost as if at the bottom of a pit or opaque bowl.

A further complication is that we live only 60 miles or so from New York City.  It may seem like a great distance—over an hour’s travel by car—but at faster than 186,000 miles per second, the millions of lumens produced by the city’s buildings, billboards and streetlamps arrive in an instant.  There is little to obstruct the rays and a high concentration of particles in the air to diffuse them.  As a result, our southern sky is constantly aglow, even on moonless nights.

Yet another problem is that we are not night owls.  Staying up late is difficult enough but getting up in the middle of the night is next to impossible.  In previous years, I’ve set an alarm for 3:00 am or thereabouts, the time at which the constellation Perseus (from which the meteors appear to originate) is overhead.  But often it is chilly at that hour.  And even when I have roused myself and made my way outdoors, I have never really awakened sufficiently to appreciate what I was seeing.

Instead, we settle for late-night viewing, after 10:00 pm until around midnight.  At this hour, Perseus is still low in the northeastern sky, behind a high screen of maple trees.  Therefore, we miss (I presume) the bulk of the meteor shower.  I always imagine that a fireworks-like display of shooting stars is whooshing this way and that (yes, I know that meteors are actually silent) as we strain our eyes in vain, the scene obscured from our sight by the dense foliage.  Or maybe there is nothing there.

So, we didn’t get the lightshow we were hoping for; in an hour and a half of viewing, we caught sight of two satellites and a grand total of four meteors (to be fair, they followed the long, slow trajectory for which the Perseids are famous).  On the other hand, we did get a pleasant evening together outdoors, in the sweet summer air, listening to the comforting background music of the crickets and cicadas.

Driving north on the New York State Thruway, on the way to Saratoga Springs, I noticed that several clumps of brown leaves pockmarked the foliage of the many normally verdant trees that line the right of way.  It looked strange—the lush green of the deciduous forest is one of the characteristics that distinguish summer in the northeast from other, drier, places I have known, such as the Central Valley of California where I grew up (everything turns straw-colored there).

At first I wondered what could be afflicting the trees, most of them maples, which I think of as resistant to disease and insects.  And then it came to me:  the brown and drying branchlets are sites of 17-year cicada eggs.  Female cicadas gnaw shallow notches in the branches into which they deposit their eggs; the notches cause the branches to die.  This phenomenon is considered the only significant downside to the emergence of the insects which otherwise cause no permanent damage (even if they do create a mess).

I do not recall observing any dead branches after the last cycle (in 1996) but I have noticed a few on some of our trees this time around.  Luckily, the condition is temporary and the trees should return to normal next year.

In the afternoon, as the sun—and the temperature—rose higher, we became aware of the arrival of the dog-day cicadas.  Their high-frequency, rapid-fire clicking cyclically swells to a crescendo before suddenly coming to a stop.  The pause always gets my attention (with the final staccato notes ringing in my echoic memory) and leaves me waiting expectantly for the resumption of the music, which usually follows shortly.

The song of the cicadas fills the aural void left behind by their 17-year cousins and marks (for me, anyway) the peak of the summer season.

This afternoon, while sitting by the pool and garden and reading the Sunday paper, we stopped to listen and heard…nothing.  As of today, the 17-year cicadas have gone silent.

The wooing is done, the females have chosen their mates and have flown, clumsily, off to nearby tree branches to lay their eggs.  Their simple task complete, the males have promptly dropped dead.  When I poke around the ornamental gardens or in the weeds at the edge of the woods, I find their bodies scattered about randomly.  Their eyes are still open (I don’t think they can be closed) but the life—and the buzzing—is gone.

After they lay their eggs, the females will also die.  Then, by summer’s end, the eggs will hatch and the next generation of Brood II nymphs will drop to the ground.  They will slowly burrow into the ground where they will spend the next 17 years feeding and—ever so slowly—growing.

The cicadas will be out of sight (a mere six to 18 inches beneath the surface) and, for most of us, out of mind until some time in early 2030.  I’ll place a reminder in my calendar, easily the first, and for about 16 years, the only, entry for that year.

The song of the 17-year cicadas is starting to wane.  It is not nearly as loud as it was just a week ago.  Then, the sound was the first thing we heard in the morning and couldn’t be ignored.  Now, we have to stop and listen for it.

But the cicada population is extremely localized.  We’ve heard that their numbers are greater across the river, for example, and that their music is cacophonous and distracting.  Also, the ground is littered with cicada carcasses there, both alive and dead.

Closer to home, a garden center a couple of miles down the road from us (to the south) is located in a cicada hot-spot.  The drone is still loud enough to feel as well as hear.  Also, their nursery, with its vast expanses of shrubs, hanging plants and potted seedlings, is thick with cicadas bumbling around in their clumsy way.

These large bugs are not the best fliers and will literally bounce off the walls or alight on a customer’s brightly-colored shirt.  And each plant purchased comes with a complimentary cicada or two, free to take home.

We’ve been very fortunate this year to have two featured players in the local orchestra that produces the sounds of nature.  The concerts occur daily but the new musical artists are appearing for a limited time only.

Since the beginning of June (see May 31, 2013), we have had a daily serenade from the 17-year cicadas.  They start just as the sun rises above the mountain ridge to the east, about seven o’clock this time of year.  I’m not sure whether it is the direct sunlight (the trees are in the shade until that hour, after which they become illuminated from the top down) that gets the cicadas going or the increase in ambient temperature that accompanies it (they are very sensitive, thermally).  Either way, their tune is our audible signal that the day has begun.

Once cued, they keep at it diligently throughout the full-sun hours and do not take a rest until the sun lays down its baton on its final approach to the horizon, at around seven o’clock in the evening.  That’s twelve hours of continuous music-making, every day.  Despite its similarity to sci-fi special effects, the melody—bass continuo might be a more apt term—is comforting.  It is a love song, after all.  We will miss it when it comes to an end.

Starting at about the same time each morning, birds perched in the weigela and forsythia that form a hedge between our yard and the road begin a complex aria of some of the most exuberant birdsong I have ever heard.  I suspect that there are several bird families nesting within the shrubs’ dense foliage and based on the energetic and animated chirping, warbling and trilling, they must be very proud parents indeed.  I’m not sure what species they are but these divas would put the fanciest canary to shame.

Like the cicadas, the birds carry on all day and sometimes into the evening (unlike the cicadas, they must not be unionized).  It is only when the sun is completely below the horizon and the sky has become fully dark that they tuck the little ones in and settle into bed.  Shortly after that, the orchestra now quiet, we do the same.  (When the crickets and frogs start their summertime gigs next month, I’m not sure we’ll know when to go to sleep.)

This morning, there was a test of the emergency siren at the nuclear power plant near us.  I was concerned that we might not be able to hear it over the din of the 17-year cicadas.  Fortunately, the siren’s blare is louder and higher-pitched so had this been an actual emergency, I would have known to tune into my local EBS station.

With this week’s warmer temperatures (and forecast highs for the weekend are in the 90s), we’ve been spotting an increasing number of 17-year cicadas (and, of course, their abandoned formerly-subterranean carcasses).  Today, they finally got warmed up enough to commence their summer love song.

It is not like the sound of the ordinary cicadas of summer (Tibicen canicularis, for the dog days of August when they appear) which produce a fast-tempo buzzing.  Instead, it is a low-pitched wail that reminds me of the noise that the Enterprise’s weapons made on the old Star Trek television show.  Lock phasers on target, Mr. Sulu.  Fire!  We’ll be under attack all summer.

Like other cicadas, I guess, the 17-year variety (Magicicada septendecim, a name which might have come straight from Harry Potter) seems to produce its song in concert with its siblings.  Collectively, they can be quite loud.  And, strangely, they will periodically stop for a few moments—silent intervals of artistic expression, perhaps; or maybe just resting—before resuming their tune.  Who is their conductor?

Warning:  Insect photos below.

 

While we were in the yard watching the tree work, we sighted more evidence of the 17-year cicadas.  As most people living in the northeast know, Brood II will be making an appearance this spring and will be with us for the entire summer and into the fall.  The unusually cool weather has delayed their emergence from the soil, a process that is driven by soil temperature.

Things are slowly warming up, finally, and the little critters are starting to make their way to the surface.  When they get here, the first thing they do is slough off the skin they’ve been wearing for the last 17 years.  They crawl out onto a tree branch or flower stem and as they are warmed by the sun, burst through the old skin straight down the middle of their backs.

They then climb out and drop to the ground, leaving the old skins behind as translucent ghosts of their former selves.  Eventually they dry out, their wings become functional and they fly off to find food and mates.  The males will be singing their low-pitched serenades all summer and the females will click-click-click at their chosen suitors.  I hope they find their eventual lovemaking worth the wait.