The hunted

More than 40 cicada species live in Texas.  Some can’t reach an inch (<20mm) in length (e.g., Beameria venosa) while others challenge the three-inch mark (>70mm) with ease (e.g., Tibicen pronotalis).  The rest fall somewhere between those extremes.

Which ones you see and hear depend on where you are and what year it is.  Some species pop up every summer (annual) while others show up every 17 years (periodical).

Of special interest is that annual cicadas do not necessarily follow a one-year lifecycle.  One of the more common cicada species here shows up every year even though it matures on a three-year schedule.  It’s the superb cicada (a.k.a. green harvestfly, green cicada or superb green cicada; Tibicen superba).

A male superb cicada (a.k.a. green harvestfly, green cicada or superb green cicada; Tibicen superba) clinging to the side of a tree (2009_07_06_026142)

As I walked home one evening, I found this male singing in the dark.  Only male cicadas sing.

Though I heard him as I approached, he fell quiet when I came near.  He needn’t have worried since it was too dark for me to see him.  Still, his song had already told me he was at eye level, so I stood patiently and waited for him to bellow his chorus into the night air.

Once he did, I knew which tree he was on, so I let the flash fly a few times to locate him, then I snapped a couple of pictures.  He seemed comfortable at that point as he didn’t stop singing again until I turned to walk away.  A few steps later and he was back at it.

A male superb cicada (a.k.a. green harvestfly, green cicada or superb green cicada; Tibicen superba) clinging to bamboo (2009_07_07_026152)

The very next day I found this male of the same species.  Unlike his predecessor, he never stopped singing even when I started poking through the bamboo to find him.  Perhaps that was a sign his love life was lacking and he didn’t have time to stop wooing the ladies.

This year offered a summer full of cicada song.  From dawn till dusk, from and in every direction, the varied music sounded every day, often punctuated with the panicked buzzing and abrupt silence that means another one bit the dust.

The difference from last year seemed profoundly apparent.  Although no tree sounded unoccupied this summer, last year’s cicada population was anemic at best.  A few songs could be heard now and again, but mostly the summer passed in silence.

That had a cataclysmic effect on the cicada-killer wasps.  Their largest colony fills the air each year with more giants than can be counted; this year perhaps a few dozen of them emerged.  A smaller colony a short distance away nearly collapsed: this year I never saw more than two or three wasps there at any time.

A male silver-bellied cicada (a.k.a. silverbelly; Tibicen pruinosus) clinging to a tree branch (10870400)

Also of interest last year was the dearth of cicada species: I never heard songs other than those sung by superb cicadas.  But as this male silver-bellied cicada (a.k.a. silverbelly; Tibicen pruinosus) shows, the summer of 2009 was filled with a variety of insect music sung by various species.

This robust variety stretched from May right through September.  When I visited the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on May 16, I found this not-yet-dry hieroglyphic cicada (Neocicada hieroglyphica) scrambling to climb from the pile of debris where it had fallen.

A hieroglyphic cicada (Neocicada hieroglyphica) in a pile of leaves (2009_05_16_018794)

And just a few days ago as I stood on the patio, this female silverbelly made a less than graceful landing in the tree.

A female silver-bellied cicada (a.k.a. silverbelly; Tibicen pruinosus) hanging upside down in a tree (2009_09_08_028935)

Ill situated to know which end was up, she tried fruitlessly to right herself.  At one point I thought she might pull it off as she hung precariously sideways and faced me directly.  But her near success crumbled beneath an untidy fall from the tree into the bushes below.

I laughed!  She tried so hard yet still wound up demonstrating the clumsy, uncoordinated knack for which cicadas are known.

Despite her tumble, she meandered about the photinias for several minutes until coming to rest in a bit of shade.  She was gone a few hours later.

I hope this explosion of cicadas helped the cicada killers recover from the devastating losses they suffered last year.  After living in the midst of several colonies where summers are full of countless giant wasps, seeing their numbers reduced to pennies on the dollar this year worried me.  I still don’t know if all the colonies survived.

And now that I’ve shown the hunter and the hunted, it’s time to look at the hunt.

4 thoughts on “The hunted”

  1. I love reading your posts! We had huge numbers of cicadas here in MD too this summer. I found one on my deck – perfect yet dead. Most of them are high above my head in the tree tops and I have yet to see them up close.

  2. Thank you, Marie! I’m glad you enjoy them.

    See, I was wondering if this year’s cicada explosion was just here in the south or if it was noticeable elsewhere.

    Everything I’ve read indicates cicadas are hard to study because they live most of their lives underground and quickly vanish into the treetops once they emerge. Truthfully I see males more than females only because I can follow the singing–and even then it’s usually coming from so high and so hidden a spot that I can’t see anything other than leaves.

  3. Gorgeous photo of T. superbus. I found this species in extreme southwestern Missouri (you guessed it, in the White River Hills region) before it was formally recorded from the state. I was hoping to see it again during my July visits this year, but no dice.

    Some people use sling shots or air rifles with sand plugs to shoot them out of the trees. I can’t bring myself to such a drastic measure but still have managed to find every species know from my state. Our biggest is T. auletes, only slightly smaller than T. pronotalis.

  4. Thank you, Ted! I’m glad you liked the photo.

    When you found T. superbus, was that another state record for you? You seem rather good at that.

    You have my sincere appreciation for not using using physical assaults to get cicadas out of the trees. It’s nice to know someone ‘in the field’ doing the science can accomplish an ‘every species’ discovery without launching projectiles into the treetops. (However, I understand why it’s done for research–even if it seems a tad barbaric.)

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