Tuning in to crickets and katydids calling out on an August night

stevenw12339 via Creative Commons. A male snowy tree cricket.

stevenw12339 via Creative Commons. A male snowy tree cricket.

By TED WATT For the Gazette

Published in print: Saturday, August 29, 2015

Caution: Reading this article will change your life.

I love the August night sounds. Those still, hot and humid nights can be oppressive, but there’s a way to escape into a different world, the soundscape of crickets and katydids, calling to attract mates and stake out territories. Some nights, at twilight, I go out in my backyard and walk slowly and quietly and just listen. As I slow down and focus on the sounds, I begin to distinguish individual calls.

The easiest one to pick out is the fall field cricket. Those are the big black ones on the ground, under logs or rocks or garbage cans. The males call by scraping their two wings together — crick, crick-crick; somewhat irregular and quite loud. If I get too close they stop calling and I have to wait, patiently. There’s another distinct species, the spring field cricket, that begins calling in May. The spring and fall crickets are almost indistinguishable by sight or call. But you can tell them by the month. The springs stop calling sometime in late July and the falls tune up in early August. Some years there is a noticeable gap with no field cricket calls. And some years I notice at night that something is missing — it’s too quiet! And then one August night there they are again; the fall field crickets have become singing adults. Next I hear a faint, shimmering in the background. The notes seem to come from everywhere at once. When I am able to pick out just one and zero in on it, it sounds like a vibration of quiet, very fast notes strung together on a single pitch. And the sound is coming from the ground. I know from my studies that this is a ground cricket. We have several species in our area and they are difficult to tell apart. During the day you can see them hopping about the lawn. For years I thought they were baby field crickets, but when I caught some and kept them in a container they made their shimmering calls — so I knew they had to be adults. When the dark really sets in the trees explode with wild and crazy cackling, scraping sounds — the Common True Katydid males are calling. Their notes usually come in triplets: ka-ty-did, ka-ty-did. They are difficult to find unless they fall or are blown from the tree tops. But when you do see one — look for a leaf that moves; they are so well camouflaged. They are loud and there can be a lot of them in deciduous woods. Once while camping in the Great Smoky Mountains in September I thought the katydids were going to carry off my tent they were so loud. If I get out on my regular run before dawn, I listen as I pass down the streets of my Greenfield neighborhood. For the past three years when I’ve been running through the Aubuchon’s parking lot on Federal Street, I’ve heard, coming from the patch of straggly yew bushes on the east side of the building, a steady creep, creep, creep sound, varying in pitch and speed depending on temperature. Insects are cold-blooded, so they rely on the ambient temperature to direct their behaviors. And this means lower and slower notes in the cold and higher and faster in the warmth. I’ve discovered that this call is the snowy tree cricket, called snowy because it is not black or brown but a pale green, almost white, in the night.

The snowy tree cricket is also called the temperature cricket because you can calculate the temperature from its calling. Count the number of notes in 13 seconds and add 40 and that will give you the temperature. That’s how finely tuned they are to their environment. Last night I was in my backyard and I heard a new call — one that I didn’t know. It was calling from the leaves of one of my peach trees. I got very close to it, but of course couldn’t see it in the dark. I listened as carefully as I could and then returned indoors and played my CD of insect calls to see if I could tell what species it was. I’m sure it was a tree cricket but I am still not sure which species. I’ll go out and listen again tonight. If you want to learn more, visit a super web site, songsofinsects.com,. It features incredible photos of the singers together with their recorded calls. I have learned that the best way to remember who is calling is to catch the singer, bring it indoors, put it in a container and wait until it relaxes. Eventually it will sing and you can match the visual image with the call in your memory. As with birds, this is a way that I find helpful in remembering who is making which call. Happy listening!

Ted Watt is an educator/naturalist at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 845 West Street, Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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