Nature Notes: A Little Night Music

Throughout June I had seen several of these pretty light green vocalists

   Monday night was a little cooler than the weekend evenings but apparently it was warm enough to get one group of night singers going, the snowy tree crickets. Shortly before dusk those around my house in Noyac burst into song. As is typical, their opening chorus was short lived but louder than usual, drowning out for a second the noise of the very busy traffic along Noyac Road.
    Throughout June I had seen several of these pretty light green vocalists around on an oak leaf or some other perch. I could see that they were getting larger by the week a little ahead of schedule, probably because of the record warm spring. And the record heat wave during the first week in July most likely turned them into full-grown adults ready to go to work. These inch-long cicadas don’t really sing, they strum, and their wings have to be developed enough and firm enough to withstand five or six hours straight of rubbing one against the other each night for two to three months straight.
    Evidently, Monday night was the night they felt competent and developed enough to strike out. They burst into song several times, always in the same monotonous key, the air was charged for several moments and I was excited as was my stepson, Christopher, from southern California, who is visiting us. Different species of snowy tree crickets occur throughout the West Coast and if you think back to some old John Wayne westerns, they were the ones making the high-pitched tremolos beyond the evening campfire. About 10 years ago I was with my wife and Christopher in July listening to the Los Angeles Symphony in concert and the snowy tree crickets were so loud they practically drowned out the performance at times.
    Lots of insects make noises and many of them do so only at night. Click beetles click, mosquitoes annoyingly buzz as they home in to suck your blood, a slue of other cicada species along with katydids can sing up a storm. Insects don’t have a trachea and larynx as humans do, all of their utterances stem from moving external body parts. The snowy tree crickets just happen to be the insects in our neck of the woods that are the most persistent.
     I’ve been following their mating rituals for as long as I’ve lived in Noyac, 33 years now. They normally start chorusing in late July depending upon how warm the spring and early summer has been. Their chorus on Monday was the earliest I’ve ever recorded by more than a week. Does it portend an unusually hot summer? We will have to wait and see.
    If their constant whining tries your musical tolerance, you might be comforted to know that during the daylight hours when they are quiet they are busy feeding on aphids and other injurious insects. If you grow roses, it’s good to have snowy tree crickets around in abundance.
    For the campers among you, they are as accurate as the ordinary store-bought thermometer in announcing the ambient temperature. If you count the number of chirps in 13 seconds and add 40 to it, you get the temperature in Fahrenheit within a degree or two.
    John Himmelman has written a wonderful little book nicely illustrated in color by Michael DiGiorgio and published by Stackpole Books titled “Guide to Night-Singing Insects of the Northeast.” It not only pictures and describes 80 different members of the Orthoptera insect class — the grasshoppers, cicadas, crickets, and katydids — but also includes a CD with their songs, not all of which are nocturnal.
    If these little buggers keep you awake at night, try to appreciate that they’ve been doing this for 100 million years or more; you’ve been sleeping for less than a couple million. In a way, they have precedence.