Tag Archives: superb cicada (Tibicen superba)

Among the missing

The words are forgotten, lost in a drive just three hours long, misplaced somewhere along 170 miles/270 kilometers of road.  Ancient names known for a city lifetime of decades, now the words hide behind months of rural living.  How familiar they were, how missing they have become.

A rock dove (a.k.a. common pigeon; Columba livia) standing on a sunny pier (2008_12_27_003660)

My lips tremble when I try to speak them.  It is as if I ask them to verbalize an unfamiliar language, phrases borne of another land, yet I ask only that they remember the words that go with the mind’s pictures, the names once common but now rare.

A fox squirrel (a.k.a. eastern fox squirrel, stump-eared squirrel, raccoon squirrel or monkey-faced squirrel; Sciurus niger) lying atop a tree trunk (2009_02_02_005789)

Dropped into memory’s abyssal hat and plucked out one by one, I read from the mental slips of paper names of the absent, of the once ubiquitous, of those long called neighbors.  What alien text is this?  From what removed existence come these unremembered names?

A male house sparrow (Passer domesticus) perched on a limb (2009_02_21_010424)

When a few short weeks ago I journeyed back those three hours, back that long distance, unbidden the words came back to me, names once more as comfortable as the threadbare sweater worn each winter for its personal value rather than its fashion statement.  I knew each name that matched each face, knew the words too quickly lost.

A male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) perched in a tree (2009_03_21_013137)

Yet back to my new world I had to return, and again the names hide among the missing, the faces lonely for the words that call them, the world outside my door barren for their absence yet abundant for their replacements.

An American coot (Fulica americana) swimming toward shore (2009_03_21_013166)

For they have indeed been replaced, the once familiar now forgotten, their collective presence full of new words, words like Texas coral snake, Inca dove, southern black widow, eastern bluebird, white-tailed deer, northern rough-winged swallow, flying squirrel, alligator, cougar, fish crow and black bear, along with many others.  How delightful these new words, how appealing the newfound familiarity of such names.

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_026143)

Nevertheless I miss the old words, the old names, those now among the missing.  In another lifetime they shared my life, found each day right outside my door.  But now they only live in other places, not here, not with me, though near me, short drives away, or once more rediscovered at the end of that three hour journey, at the destination resting 170 miles/270 kilometers away.

Still, now I shall stutter the gibberish that goes with each mental picture, shall feel the unfamiliar words stumble upon my lips, shall pluck the words from memory’s deep hat with hope I shall remember those who remain among the missing.

— — — — — — — — — —


  1. Rock dove (a.k.a. common pigeon; Columba livia)
  2. Fox squirrel (a.k.a. eastern fox squirrel, stump-eared squirrel, raccoon squirrel or monkey-faced squirrel; Sciurus niger)
  3. Male house sparrow (Passer domesticus)
  4. Male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)
  5. American coot (Fulica americana)
  6. Male superb cicada (a.k.a. green harvestfly, green cicada or superb green cicada; Tibicen superba)

Seven years, seven truths

Superb cicada (Tibicen superba) after molting (201_0150_c)

Seven years ago I could not have identified more than ten bird species.

Six years ago I did not know that velvet ants were actually wingless wasps.

Five years ago I had no idea that green anoles changed color at will.

Four years ago I was terrified of the cicada-killer wasps that surround my home each summer.

Three years ago I had never seen an alligator in person.

Two years ago I was unaware that ibises, herons and egrets nest in the middle of Dallas.

One year ago I could not have differentiated one cicada species from another.

[superb cicada (Tibicen superba)]

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.

Welcome to the dog days of summer

I stepped out to the patio with a cup of coffee and a breakfast offering for the local cats.  The time was shortly after 6 a.m., so the world rested dimly under dawn’s feeble light struggling to break through the clouds.

After greeting Larenti and watching her start her morning meal, I stood quietly, meditatively, and sipped casually from the cup of warmth.

I had nothing particular on my mind and allowed my senses to wander the area while I soaked up the goings on of nature’s waking.  Then my eyes stumbled over something on the tree right outside the patio fence.  With so little light, even its nearness made it difficult to see clearly.  Only later I would realize its texture and color made for perfect camouflage on the bark.

I gave the object one quick glance before deciding it was nothing more impressive than an old scar on the trunk, one covered long ago with fresh growth that left a ligneous knot.  I assumed it had caught my attention only because of the lighting that somehow made it seem more prominent.

But when I again stepped outside perhaps an hour or so later, I intentionally returned to the same spot to confirm my earlier thought.  How wrong I had been.

What had seemed a woody nodule in the dark had become something quite different with more light.  Not only that, but it had changed shape.

A superb cicada (Tibicen superba) emerging from its molted shell (201_0108)

What I had seen before was a dog-day superb cicada nymph (Tibicen superba).  With the outer shell covered with dirt and already colored rustic brown as it dried, it had looked like part of the tree, but the adult half-emerged from the molt certainly clarified things.

A superb cicada (Tibicen superba) emerging from its molted shell (201_0109)

As you can see from that photo, its wings had already begun to unfurl.  Its position, however, seemed quite amusing with it protruding from the molt perpendicular to the tree, as though it simply didn’t care about falling because all it wanted to do was get out of that old shell and into its new body.

Unlike periodical cicadas, such as Brood XIII, dog-day superb cicadas are larger and occur in Texas every year since multiple broods overlap.

Their name, dog day, stems from their annual arrival during the hottest part of summer.

A superb cicada (Tibicen superba) (201_0122)

An hour later when I returned to check on it, its wings had fully expanded.  The light by then gave me a beautiful view of the green veins permeating the thin membranous wings.

A superb cicada (Tibicen superba) (201_0125)

You undoubtedly know cicadas hold their wings next to their bodies.  For this one, it would not do so until they dried.  It would hold them out away from itself to help expedite that process.

A superb cicada (Tibicen superba) (201_0128)

That’s a view showing how it holds them out and allows them to dry.

A superb cicada (Tibicen superba) (201_0143)

I do love the cold darkness of their eyes, the marvelously endless depth they seem to contain.  Some might say they appear empty and dead; I would disagree—wholeheartedly.

Again about an hour later, I went back out to see what progress the little beastie had made.

A superb cicada (Tibicen superba) (201_0145)

It had finally folded its wings back against its body.  I doubted it was ready to fly, but it certainly seemed ready to begin moving up the tree.  Even as I snapped a few photos, it slowly began stepping sideways to get off the molt and onto the trunk.

A superb cicada (Tibicen superba) (201_0150)

When I realized its time had come to enter the new world, I left it alone so it could work its way toward the heavens, finish its preparations for flight, and take its place in the dog days of summer.

Much later I chanced to look for it and found it had already made its way up into thick foliage and out on a smaller branch.  I stepped inside to grab the camera but discovered it had already disappeared in the few seconds it had taken me to get back to the patio.

[please note that, although I’ve identified this as a dog-day cicada (Tibicen canicularis), it could well be a superb cicada (Tibicen superba) instead; as a newly emerged adult, its colors and patterns are nondescript and will become clearer within the next week; while the two species are quite similar at this stage and common in this area, one this young is difficult to identify because its shell and wings are not dry, and its markings are not developed yet]

[Update] I’ve since learned that only the superb cicada (Tibicen superba) has an all-green front half, so I’ve updated the post with that identification.