Wild Ideas: Mysterious summer sights and sounds   

As midsummer approaches, some unexpected sounds and sightings of wildlife have been occurring where I live.

During the day, the annual scissor-grinder cicadas have been in full chorus since early July. As the nights have heated up, the pulsating choruses and piercing, sustained beeps of various species of katydids and their orthopteran relatives started filling the air. After the silence of winter nights, I find the choruses soothing. But sometimes, after the choruses have ended, some lone hymenopteran will do a solo under my window. Its remarkably loud call, interrupted occasionally by silence, is a lot harder to sleep through than a full chorus, which becomes white noise to me. As the night cools, even these soloists goes silent.

Sometimes, another familiar nocturnal sound arises — the howls of coyotes. While coyotes are more active at dawn and dusk, I usually hear this chorus an hour or two after dark. The howling is the bonding ritual of alpha mated pairs, sometimes joined by pups.

Another sound as night was closing in led to my brief encounter with one of my favorite species. I heard a bird scolding something from the copse of trees just beyond my deck. Most songbirds are sleeping by that time of night, so which one was calling and what had disturbed it? I opened the screen door to the deck and found myself briefly locking eyes with a screech owl a few feet away.

The owl was sitting on the head of a pelican-shaped planter (which I use as a bird feeder in winter) on the deck railing. I’ve had similar encounters with these tiny owls on several occasions. Usually I’m walking through a forest — or, in one case, a garden on an estate — and turn my head to find a screech owl sitting on a branch at my eye level, staring back. Sometimes the owls take off, as the owl on the deck did, and sometimes they don’t, but they never seemed too fussed about the intrusion.

Perhaps the owl was looking for rodents or snakes out there. I had found snake scat, full of what looked like rodent hair, on my deck one morning. I’ve seen hawks hanging around during the day in the winter trying to pick off birds at feeders, but this was the first owl. The bird that was scolding it was one of the white-eyed vireos that had nested in the copse the last couple of years.

One morning, my landlord and his grandson heard a mysterious sound on their boat during a fishing expedition to a nearby pond. They thought it was a bird, but it turned out to be a gray treefrog. As I reported in an earlier column, that boat often fills with rain during the treefrog’s mating season, and several of the frogs gather there, probably because it seems to offer a potential ephemeral breeding pool, one of the few available for this terrestrial species. They haven’t figured out that the pool gets dumped out frequently by my landlord. Fortunately, the treefrog that had inadvertently hitched a ride came back with the boat, apparently no worse for wear. It is probably among the few gray treefrogs still calling on warm nights, now that their breeding season is ending.

A phone app helped me sort out a sound at dawn in the yard around my house, which I immediately thought was from a terrestrial bird, probably from the Galliformes order, which includes wild turkey and ruffed grouse. It was making a clucking sound, but different from the clucking of chickens, which are also galliforms. Checking my “Sibley Birds” app, I found that wild turkey and ruffed grouse also cluck, but the closest sound to what I was hearing in the yard was of a male turkey. A few days before, my landlady had described a similar call she had heard near her house. After sharing the calls on my app with her, she agreed that we were both hearing a wild turkey. All About Birds has a recording of a wild turkey making a “purring call” that is similar.

Most of the invertebrates I’ve spotted recently were nymphs or adults of species I’m already familiar with, including a lot more silvery checkerspot butterflies than I normally see here. But, on one of my potted plants, I found a tiny, yellowish-orange lady beetle with no spots.

By Pam Owen
A silvery checkerspot butterfly nectars on a zinnia.

Despite its lack of spots, I was pretty sure it was a multicolored Asian lady beetle, which has been outcompeting our native lady beetles, and becoming a nuisance for a long time. The key to identifying the Asian species, which comes in a variety of colors, is the black “W” pattern on the pronotum, the shield between the top of the head and the body. This bug had four black marks there that didn’t quite join yet but looked like they would eventually form that pattern.

By Pam Owen
This tiny, spotless lady beetle is a young muliticolored Asian lady beetle, as indicated by the “W” shape forming on its head.

On the herp front, a seal salamander showed up in a concrete tank at the trout pond, probably washed down the mountain with the spring water that feeds the tank before running into the trout pond. My landlord found a salamander of the same species in the tank a few years ago. Although it’s brown, I think its name comes more from its large, seal-like eyes. But its Latin name is Desmognathus monticola, with monticola meaning “mountaineer” or “highlander,” referring to where it is typically found.

By Pam Owen
A seal salamander gets its photo taken in a bucket before being released back into the wild.

During some trimming around my house, I found two eastern American toads — an adult, and a toadlet that was just over an inch long. I like to leave enough vegetative cover for these and other critters that like that area, including pickerel frogs, five-lined skinks and the various insects, so I left the strip with the toads alone.

By Pam Owen
Pam Owen found this tiny eastern American toadlet, along with an adult toad of the same species, next to her house.

My herb garden is just around the corner, on the south wall of the house. It’s actually a mix of herbs and native wildflowers I’ve planted, along with volunteers from seeds that didn’t get fully composted (tomatoes, typically). At this point, it is also overrun with volunteer invasives, such as Japanese stilt grass, which are unwelcome. I often take a stab at removing those, only to quit after finding I’m disturbing a katydid, cricket, mantis or other bug living among the “weeds.” Frankly, I enjoy the bugs more than the plants.

© 2017 Pam Owen

What’s blooming?

Here in Old Hollow, early July brought a bit of a lull in the wildflower species that were blooming. But by the end of the month, the next wave of blooms had started. Winged sumac, ironweed, Joe-pye weed and spotted jewelweed is providing a mix of color down at the ponds. Along the trails in the forest, the inconspicuous, pale-yellow plumes of spikenard. Evening primrose, with its bigger, brighter yellow blooms had started decorating the forest edge and fallow areas of the gardens. And Jerusalem artichoke was blooming, well, pretty much everywhere that offered some light.

By Pam Owen
Evening primrose just starting to bloom at the end of July.
Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 284 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.”

2 Comments

  1. Beautiful. I live along Lake Ontario shoreline, now the target of a wind developer. We are on a raptor flyway, and we, too, cherish our natural nighttime sounds. So hard for people to appreciate that once it’s lost, it’s not coming back. We share many of same critters here in rural New York State. Thanks for sn interesting journal.

    • Thanks for your comment. I’ve traveled through your area several times, and it’s beautiful. Let’s hope we can preserve the wildness in both areas.

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