Nature’s nighttime symphony plays this fall in Pennsylvania

I love spring, when the forest is filled with sounds — the cascading trout stream that flows past my home, the dozens of different bird songs, as well as the spring peepers and wood frogs calling from my small wetland.

However, at this time of year there are long periods of quiet. Long silenced are the frogs and peepers. The stream, once noisily rushing toward the ocean, has diminished to a quiet trickle. Most birds are silent, too — no longer defending nesting territories. Sure, the chatter of a chickadee, the call of a blue jay or the raspy croak of a raven sometimes punctuates the still, but there is much more quiet than singing.

Through the course of the day, all is pretty quiet; that is until the sun sets — then the calm is overpowered by a wall of “night sounds.” It starts with a few melodious chirps and escalates as the evening progresses. The wall of sound can be so intense that an evening city-dwelling visitor once asked (actually yelled), “How can you stand all of this noise?”

Not only do I stand it, I savor it. The sounds that fill the night from late July through the first heavy frost are primarily made by two groups of insects — katydids and crickets.

The sound wave usually begins in late July with the chirp of a single or a few crickets. In July, you can actually pick out the individuals from their intermittent sounds — not so at this time of year. Hundreds of crickets have now been joined in their night symphony by hundreds, if not thousands of katydids. The warmer the night, the louder the “music.”

Although true crickets and katydids are related, they are in different taxonomic families. They do share many characteristics, one of which is their noise-making abilities. There are 19 species of crickets, katydids and grasshoppers in Pennsylvania, including six species of crickets and seven of katydids. These numbers pale in comparison to the over 6,400 species of katydids and 900 species of crickets that are found worldwide — in the warmer regions of the globe.

With many, but not all, species of crickets and katydids, it is the male that makes most of the noise — call used to attract females and repel other males of the same species. The matchmaking ritual is called stridulation — act of rubbing two specially-textured limbs together. A serrated section on the insect’s forewing (the scraper) is rubbed against a file-like structure on an adjacent limb. Other body parts often amplify the sound.

When we were in the process of building our first house, we often worked on the interior after dark. Katydids, attracted to the lights, would filter in through the window openings and soon we would have 30 or more climbing up the interior walls and singing. Talk about loud!

Katydids have extremely long, thin antennae — sometimes longer than their bodies. Most of the species in Pennsylvania are green and look like leaves. This helps to camouflage the insects when they are resting or feeding on leaves or grass.

Crickets are found in many habitats, but most here are usually found at ground level in weedy fields, in rotting logs and even in caves. They can be herbivorous like katydids or omnivorous — a wide variety of organic material, both plant and animal.

Crickets are raised as feed for certain pets, such as large spiders or some reptiles. In southeast Asia, crickets — deep fried or baked — are consumed by humans. Cricket flower is used as a protein-rich food additive.

Way back in 1897, Amos Dolbear discovered the relationship between temperature and the rate at which crickets chirp. This is called Dolbear’s Law — the warmer the night, the less time between chirps.

All of this insect activity is not lost on the fishing world. Live crickets are sometimes used as fishing bait and there are terrestrial fly patterns that imitate crickets — tied in black or some shade of brown to resemble the real thing.

“Two of the classic fly patterns are the Letort Cricket and Dave’s Cricket, but today there are a multitude of newer patterns, usually tied with foam, that imitate crickets,” said Dennis Charney, a fly tyer at Flyfisher’s Paradise in State College.

Charney was not aware of any specific pattern tied to mimic the bright green katydids that we see in central Pennsylvania, but said it is likely that there are some out there. The Morman Cricket is a fly tied to resemble a species of katydid common along rivers in the western United States.

Enjoy nature’s nighttime soundtrack, for it will not be around for long. As evening temperatures cool the night sounds will decrease. Sometime between mid-September and late October, the soundtrack will end and the night will become still again.

Categories: Pennsylvania – Mark Nale

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