American Birding Podcast

Categories

Archives

Crickets. Seriously.

 

“There is a peculiar virtue in the music of elusive birds.”

So writes Aldo Leopold in “The Choral Copse,” one of the most powerful and affecting entries in A Sand County Almanac. Merely 415 words long, “The Choral Copse” can scarcely be called an essay. It’s a miniature, a vignette. Yet it conveys a big idea, one of the central themes in A Sand County Almanac and indeed in all of Leopold’s writings—namely, that the natural world is considerably more interesting and beautiful than is generally appreciated.

Leopold delights, almost to the point of being snide, in setting the record straight. In “The Geese Return,” Leopold disparages “an educated lady, banded by Phi Beta Kappa, who told me that she had never heard or seen the geese that twice a year proclaim the revolving seasons to her well-insulated roof.” In “Great Possessions,” he belittles the County Clerk, “a sleepy fellow, who never looks at his record books before nine o’clock.” And in Leopold’s brilliant “Draba,” the author requires only 197 words to find fault with botany texts, with botanists themselves, with poets, and with pretty much all the rest of us.

Back to “The Choral Copse.”

Leopold here describes the chorusing of the northern bobwhite. It happens in “the hush of dawn” on still mornings in September. “No naturalist has ever seen the choral act,” Leopold avers, “for the covey is still on its invisible roost in the grass, and any attempt to approach automatically induces silence.” Were it not for the bobwhite chorus, autumn mornings would be nearly lifeless:

“By September, the day breaks with little help from birds. A song sparrow may give a single half-hearted song, a woodcock may twitter overhead en route to his daytime thicket, a barred owl may terminate the night’s argument with one last wavering call, but few other birds have anything to say or sing about.”

 

I went to my local patch this past Sunday morning. Officially, it was the last full day of summer, but fall was in the air. The woods—more of a copse, really—were practically silent. There are no woodcocks or barred owls where I live. No bobwhites of late, either. We have song sparrows, but they were silent on Sunday morning, declining to issue so much as “a single half-hearted song.”

Two hours earlier, though, things were different. As different as day and night. Listen to this five-second cut from a recording I made before sunrise that morning:

Those are owls, of course. Two of them, but they’re not barred owls, as I’ve already hinted. They’re great horned owls. And I wouldn’t say they’re arguing. They’re courting.

I saw them up on the roof of an apartment building, and I could see that the female would start the duet. You can hear her higher-pitched hooting (eight hoots in all) at the beginning, with the male’s hooting (four lower-pitched hoots) trailing off at the end.

How do I distinguish the male from the female? Well, it’s known that the female gives a longer series of higher-pitched notes; it’s also well established that female horned owls are larger than their mates, and I could easily see the size difference even in the dawn’s early light. There’s something else, something less well known: I’ve noticed that the courting male assumes a horizontal posture, tail cocked up, head and “ears” stretched forward. He looks for all the world like a greater prairie-chicken. He even sounds like one. The female, meanwhile, sits nearby, hooting, and looking, comparatively more strigine.

There are some other sounds in that five-second cut.

For example, I can hear a sudden sharp note just before the three-second mark. That’s the flight call of a Chipping Sparrow on nocturnal migration. I didn’t see the Chipping Sparrow, but I know it’s that species because of the spectrographic signature of the flight call: about 80 milliseconds, with two frequency bands, the lower and stronger band falling from 8½ kHz to 6½ kHz, then rising again to 7½ kHz.

Also audible are crickets. I’ll have more to say about them in a little while, but I’m not done yet with the Chipping Sparrow.

On my visit after sunrise to my patch, I saw and heard no Chipping Sparrows. They may well have been there. But they’re easily overlooked on their fall migration stopover sites in my part of the country. They’re small and drab. They hide by day in thickets and copses. They have little “to say or sing about”—except by night in summer and early autumn, when their piercing flight calls ring out in the starlit skies above the plains of eastern Colorado.

I’m reminded of a passage from “Draba”:

“He who hopes for spring with upturned eye never sees so small a thing as Draba. He who despairs of spring with downcast eye steps on it, unknowing. He who searches for spring with his knees in the mud finds it, in abundance.”

 


O
ne of the most stirring natural spectacles is the audible nocturnal migration of songbirds over eastern and central North America in early autumn. The night sky is filled with the calls of thrushes and grosbeaks, warblers and sparrows, even the odd cuckoo or heron. You can’t actually see any of it, and that adds to the mystique. “There is a peculiar virtue,” a great naturalist once wrote, “in the music of elusive birds.”

On good nights, the flight goes on for hours, reaching an incredible climax at dawn, as the birds are landing. Once you’re aware of it, the phenomenon of nocturnal migration is every bit as obvious and conspicuous as the dawn chorus in June or geese splashing about in a thawing marsh in spring.

I’m a tremendous admirer of Aldo Leopold. I believe that A Sand County Almanac is the summit of American nature writing. And I have a confession. After all these years, I’m still attracted—as I was in my teenage years—to Leopold by the way he “calls out” supposedly learned people: the lady in Phi Beta Kappa, the County Clerk, the botanist who described Draba, and a whole host of others. Can we add to that list the fellow who knew the arcane secrets of the choral copse, yet got it all wrong about the riot of bird calls at daybreak in September?

 

“I have just learned to see praying mantis egg cases,” writes Annie Dillard in Chapter 4, “The Fixed,” in her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “Suddenly I see them everywhere…Within the week I’ve seen thirty of so of these egg cases in a rose-grown field on Tinker Mountain, and another thirty in weeds along Carvin’s Creek.” Dillard confesses to “the smug feeling of knowing, all summer long, that they’re out there in your garden.”

On Sunday afternoon, a few hour after I visited my local patch, my son and I were walking along a busy street near our house. I think we saw it at exactly the same time: a fleet-footed, mainly black, red-spotted bug on the sidewalk. A moment later, another. Then the realization that there must have been about thirty.

Because they moved so fast, they were hard to photograph. But we found one with a broken leg, and we found a pair slowed down—at least a little bit—by a different sort of concern. When we got back to the house, we figured out what we had chanced upon: Jadera haematoloma, the red-shouldered bug, one of the “scentless plant bugs” in the family Rhopalidae.

Red-shouldered bug, Jadera haematoloma (Hemiptera: Rhopalidae). Boulder County, Colorado; Sept. 21, 2014. Photo by © Andrew Floyd.

Red-shouldered bug, Jadera haematoloma (Hemiptera: Rhopalidae). Boulder County, Colorado; Sept. 21, 2014. Photo by © Andrew Floyd.

Red-shouldered bug, Jadera haematoloma (Hemiptera: Rhopalidae). Boulder County, Colorado; Sept. 21, 2014. Photo by © Andrew Floyd.

I was particularly interested to read that the red-shouldered bug is commonly found on Koelreuteria paniculata, the panicled golden rain tree, an exotic soapberry in the family Sapindaceae. The street with the bugs is lined with panicled golden rain trees.

I’d never noticed—I’d never even heard of—panicled golden rain trees until a few years ago. They’re actually quite common in residential districts in and around Lafayette, Colorado, where I live. And they’re conspicuous, with prominent yellow flowers that bloom in mid-summer—an unusual life-history trait for trees in our area.

I learned a little while ago to see panicled golden rain trees. I have just now learned to see red-shouldered bugs. I have a feeling I’ll be seeing them in droves in the days to come.

 

Something Dillard doesn’t explain in “The Fixed” is how she learned to see praying mantis egg cases. I can tell you that she didn’t have the resources my son and I did: phones that take pictures, the Facebook group “Arthropods Colorado,” and Eric R. Eaton and Kenn Kaufman’s Field Guide to Insects of North America.

I disagree with those who lament the impact of new technologies and new knowledge on how we engage the natural world. Thanks to iPhones, Facebook, and the Eaton and Kaufman field guide, I’m seeing more than ever before.

iPhones and Facebook. They’re game changers for sure. It’s not the technology per se, so much as it is our expanded awareness of the world around us. I remember when nature photographers were a rarity, like eggshell carvers or recreational glassblowers; today cell phone bird photography is as common as driving a car or buying a coffee, a point Noah Strycker explored earlier this year in this very forum. As to Facebook, the “Arthropods Colorado” group alone has been worth the proverbial price of admission. Here’s how it works: You go out, find an insect, document it (typically with your iPhone camera), upload the photo, and discuss the ID. All of a sudden, several hundred of us in Colorado are emerging experts at insect identification.

The biggie for me, though, has been a book, an honest-to-goodness good-old-fashioned book.

The Eaton and Kaufman guide employs the technology of digitally enhanced photos, but the book’s real breakthrough is pedagogical. It depicts insects as you actually see them in the wild. Among the 100,000 species of insects known from North America north of Mexico, a comparatively manageable lot are routinely encountered by ordinary amateurs. Hence the focus of the Eaton and Kaufman guide: Show images of the insects—at the level of individual species if possible, or instead at the level of genera or even whole families if appropriate—you’re likely to encounter in nature. With this book, you can go out, find an insect, any insect, put a name on it, and see it at last. Sounds simple, but it was impossible until this book came along.

 

It’s satisfying to have learned in the past decade that Chipping Sparrow flight calls fill the night sky in my neighborhood in Colorado, and to have learned earlier this week that red-shouldered bugs may be found, in abundance, wherever there are panicled golden rain trees. It’s okay to have what Dillard calls “the smug feeling of knowing” new things, to be “exultant, in a daze, dancing” with secret knowledge.

Thus, my satisfaction—more of that, I hope, than smugness—at “seeing” the various features in the audio recording I made at the break of dawn on Sunday morning: the owls, whose calls tell us what species we’re listening to, and even who’s the boy and who’s the girl; and the flight call, that now-you-hear-it-now-you-don’t utterance whose spectrographic “fingerprint” is an unambiguous match for the Chipping Sparrow.

And crickets.

In “Nightwatch,” Dillard’s mesmerizing account of being about on a warm evening in September, the crickets are an afterthought, “calling their own tune which they have been calling since the time of Pliny, who noted bluntly of the cricket, it ‘never ceaseth all night long to creak very shrill.’ ”

Pliny didn’t have the sound-editing freeware package Audacity. Neither did Dillard. But I do, and it’s a piece of cake to get rid of the crickets, like this:

Not long ago, not all that long at all, I would have recommended precisely that strategy: Set the Audacity low-pass filter above the low-pitched hooting of the owls but below the fundamental frequency of the crickets’ call, and—voila!—the cricket ceaseth all night long to creak very shrill.

I’ve had a change of heart.

A lot of birders pick up secondary interests. Butterflies, for example. Also “odes,” short for odonates (dragonflies and damselflies). And Steve Howell’s got this thing going with what he calls flyingfish, all one word.

To be sure, I enjoy the challenge of butterflying and even “mothing” (although I don’t yet self-identify as a “mother”). As to odes and flyingfish, they’re gorgeous, but I’m honestly happy to have someone else ID them for me. Now cricketsong (if Howell can get away with it…)—that’s something I could see developing into a full-on obsession.

Sunday, the day before the equinox, ended the same way it began, with crickets. But not just any old crickets, innominate and faintly annoying as they were until quite recently.

This one is a fall field cricket, Gryllus pennsylvanicus, singing Sunday night from a rock pile in a corner of my front lawn:

And this is a snowy tree cricket, Oecanthus fultoni, in a hibiscus on the other side of the yard:

I should say, these are snowy tree crickets. In the plural. They sing synchronously. The hibiscus was full of them. I had no idea. As with all orthopterans, their calling rate is directly correlated with air temperature, but these guys take it to an extreme. Count the number of snowy tree cricket chirps in 15 seconds, add 40, and you get the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit to within one degree. So it was 59 ±1° when I made that recording Sunday night.

My yard list is at 2.

And tonight I’m going on my first cricket “chase.” I “need” Eunemobius carolinus, the Carolina ground cricket, and I’m pretty sure I can “get” it near the marsh down the street.

 

Pliny was underwhelmed by crickets, but Nathaniel Hawthorne saw the light. In Hawthorne’s quaint Canterbury Pilgrims, one of the characters “listen[s] to that most ethereal of all sounds, the song of crickets, coming in full choir upon the wind, and fancie[s] that, if moonlight could be heard, it would sound just like that.” As various commentators—including Eaton and Kaufman in their field guide—have noted, Hawthorne appears to have been referring to the snowy tree cricket, the same species trilling in my hibiscus.

There was no moon that Sunday night, I would have said, save for Hawthorne’s wonderfully synesthetic roundabout. With no moonlight, then, but only moonsound, there remained one more act of witness for me.

For the first time all day, I hoisted my binoculars—antiquated technology from the 20th century—and viewed the planet Uranus, rising in the east, a blue-green dot hanging perfectly still in the now fully night sky. Uranus is visible to the naked eye; watch for a few weeks, and you’ll notice the telltale slow drift through the heavens that unmistakably marks Uranus as a planet. Yet nobody—not the Chinese, neither the Mayans nor the Greeks, not even the Arabs—would see it until after the invention of the telescope.

I pondered that matter, and I had a thought—neither smug nor snide, not even self-satisfied. It was full of simple wonder, that’s all.

Here goes.

This world, this whole universe, of ours is infinitely interesting and boundlessly beautiful. And we are equipped as never before—with our iPhones and audio recorders, with crowdsourcing and interactive online star charts, with new knowledge and new paradigms—to apprehend beauty and share it with others.