Sights and Sounds of Summer

Northern New Jersey is in the middle of a serious heat wave. Daytime temperatures are in the mid-90s Fahrenheit and overnight temperatures don’t drop much below 80. During even a hot spell such as this there are certain sights and sounds that can be expected.

The cicadas are out. Last month the major and secondary news outlets all had stories about thousands, nay millions of cicadas emerging in the space of a few days, producing an incredible din in some neighborhoods, and littering sidewalks, driveways, and steps with their carcasses. Some friends related personal accounts of the invasion, mostly featuring stories of the noise. Around Passaic and Clifton cicadas make their appearance a bit later in the summer. Growing up in Clifton I remember being told that if I heard the buzz of a cicada it meant the day would be hot. Several years ago, probably during the last major cicada infestation, I recall seeing several specimens, still inside their carapaces, climb up a fence or a cement block wall, split and emerge from the carapace, unfold and fill their wings, and fly away. This year I was impressed by the constant drone that I heard as I walked through the park to the train station in the morning, and then again in the evening by a persistent buzzing in the neighborhood as darkness descended.

Whenever the cicadas emerge cicada-killer wasps are sure to appear as well. This year I’ve seen only one, and it was dead. They are impressive creatures to watch, taking down cicadas that are perhaps twice their weight. I would not want to stumble on a nest of them, though. They are the biggest wasps I’ve ever seen. I’ve been stung many times by yellow jackets and their stings hurt. If the size of the cicada killer is any indication of the intensity of the sting, that would be one painful sting! [Update: Cicada-killer wasps do not build communal nests like those that hornets and yellow jackets build. They are solitary creatures. The female wasp digs a nest in sandy ground to bury her prey and lay her eggs on the carcass. The larvae feed on the carcasses of the dead cicadas that the female wasp has killed and transported to the nest. Male wasps exist only to mate with the females. They do not help build the nest, and they do not help transport the cicada carcasses to the nest. The sting of the wasp is reported to be no worse than the sting of any other wasp, and cicada killers rarely sting people unless provoked or trapped.]

The barn swallow is another species that seems to take excessive heat in stride. One would think that swallows, and the flying insects on which they feed, would be loath to venture out  like mad dogs or Englishmen into the noonday sun. But venture they do, the swallows wheeling, diving, and dancing in the hot air.

Mockingbirds as well do not seem intimidated by the heat. When all else is quiet, when all other life forms human and nonhuman have stilled their voices and taken shelter in the shade, the mockingbird can sometimes be seen and heard on some high, exposed perch on a rooftop or treetop. The heat does seem to trick them into behavior that appears nutty to human observers, such as flying straight up a few feet from their perch and then flying straight down to the same perch. No doubt there is some explanation that is rational in the way that any bird behavior is rationale, but it escapes me.

4 thoughts on “Sights and Sounds of Summer

    • passaicbackyard 8 August, 2013 / 8:26 pm

      Cool. Thank you. I did not think of it as mating behavior, perhaps because I see it well past what seems to be the regular mating season for most wild birds.

    • passaicbackyard 18 August, 2013 / 5:07 pm

      Our birding guide in Maine, a park ranger, pointed out that birds that do not migrate out of the area–she was discussing goldfinches at the time–can mate later in the season or can raise more than one brood of young because their young do not need to be sufficiently mature to migrate. That’s why male goldfinches wear breeding plumage in August when most other birds are getting ready to begin their migration. It might also explain why mockingbirds display courting behavior so late in the season.

      • drandrewwalsh 18 August, 2013 / 8:40 pm

        Ah, interesting. That all certainly sounds plausible, and explains the available data nicely.

        Definitely a worthwhile vacation then!

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