Wild Ideas: Heat, humidity, singing and skittering

July and August, usually the hottest months here, are often referred to as the “dog days” of summer. The term actually refers to the Dog Star (Sirius), which rises and sets with the sun this time of year. In Virginia, by August the heat has usually abated somewhat, but the humidity increases, creating the dank doldrums that make this one of my least favorite months. Still, nature keeps unfolding, and I keep roaming around the yard and the county taking stock.

Two instars of green stink bug feed on a sunflower stalk. Photos by Pam Owen.
Two instars of green stink bug feed on a sunflower stalk. Photos by Pam Owen.

On the insect front, the rise of Brood II of periodical cicadas is over for another 17 years. The adults have bred and died, leaving only carcasses on the ground and flagging (dead branch tips) in the trees. Observing which trees have the most flagging is a great way to learn which species cicadas prefer as hosts. It’s easy to see oaks rate highly with the bugs.

Now the more subdued chorus of our annual cicadas, which appear in much smaller numbers, has replaced the louder hum of the periodicals. These annual species are often referred to as the “dog day” cicadas because of their appearance this time of year, although there is only one species that actually bears that name. Among these annual cicadas, the scissor-grinder seems to be most prevalent up here. As its name implies, its sound has all the charm of the periodical cicadas’.

At night in the surrounding forest, the sound of katydids and crickets has taken over that of gray tree frogs, which are done breeding for the year. Several species of cricket add to the chorusing, some even sounding during the day. Even with the help of the CD that comes with “Songs of Insects” by Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger (audio clips are also available at songsofinsects.com), I have a tough time sorting out all these singing insects.

Not even the rain can stop these male (left) and female (right) ruby-throated hummingbirds from filling up on nectar at a feeder, while trying to avoid two bald-faced hornets underneath. Almost a dozen hummers show up regularly at this feeder, now that this year’s babies have fledged.
Not even the rain can stop these male (left) and female (right) ruby-throated hummingbirds from filling up on nectar at a feeder, while trying to avoid two bald-faced hornets underneath. Almost a dozen hummers show up regularly at this feeder, now that this year’s babies have fledged.

The giant-sunflower patch outside my bedroom window has drawn hoards of our native green stink bug in various instars. While they’re pretty little bugs, they’ve sucked the life out of the sunflowers’ stalks, with help from a few native coreid bugs. Bees have also been attracted to the few sunflowers that have managed to bloom, chowing down on the copious amounts of pollen they produce. I keep adding shots of these tiny critters to my bug slideshow on my website, nighthawkcommunications.net.

Butterflies and other insects are also attracted to the delicate blue, fringed flowers of the wild bergamot, or beebalm (Monarda fistulosa), that has been blooming. A meadow full of it at a friend’s place near Flint Hill is now fading, but the delicate Queen Anne’s lace is now in bloom. Another blue flower, chicory, is also in bloom, contrasting with the golden blossoms of the sunflowers, wingstem and goldenrod in open areas.

The wild phlox in my herb garden keeps on blooming, too, its sweet smell blending in with that of the herbs. The clouds of butterflies that had been coming to the phlox — I counted 17 at one time a couple of weeks ago — seem to have moved on, possibly to Joe Pye weed. The Joe Pye weed down around the ponds and in other damp, low places, is now covered with butterflies, especially swallowtails.

Almost a dozen hummingbirds are now loudly jockeying for position at my feeder, indicating that at least three clutches have hatched out successfully and have joined the four adults that have been coming to the feeder since spring. One evening, as I was watching this aerial display out on the deck, a young sharp-shinned hawk landed in a tree about 10 feet away. It took a minute for the hawk to realize that I was there, so I got a good look at it before it saw me and took off for the forest edge. I wasn’t sure if it just happened by or was drawn to the commotion of the hummingbirds. While sharp-shinned are known to hang around bird feeders to pick off the songbirds that visit them, it’s hard to imagine they would have the speed and agility to catch hummers.

A young five-lined skink, measuring barely three inches, explores the outside wall of the author’s house.
A young five-lined skink, measuring barely three inches, explores the outside wall of the author’s house.

Tiny blue-tailed skink babies measuring barely three inches suddenly seem to be skittering everywhere along the outer walls of the house, while adults lounge in the sun on the front porch. Yearling bears also seem to be wandering everywhere, looking lost now that their moms have abandoned them to start another family.

Not all young mammals have left their moms. A family of raccoons woke me up the other night, chittering and screeching under my window, among the sunflowers. I have no idea what they were fighting over, although I had dumped some peach peelings in the compost heap nearby. For whatever reason, the raccoons had knocked down one of the sunflowers, so I yelled at them, at which point they just carried their argument over to the other side of the house. Shining my flashlight out the window on that side, I spotted a mom and three half-grown kits still carrying on. I yelled once more, and the family slowly clambered away.

I haven’t been up to the upper pond for a while, but earlier in the summer it was black with tadpoles. With luck, it’s now full of frogs.

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 275 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”

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