Wild Ideas: Chorusing katydids ring in fall

After the mild winter, early spring and brutal heat of July, I was thinking we’d have an extended summer. However, fall arrived with seasonably cooler days and less humidity – in other words, as close to normal as our seasons have been recently.

After having a grueling couple of weeks of dealing with serious computer issues and meeting work deadlines, I decided to head for Shenandoah National Park to see how fall was progressing. It was the last week in September, and the day was sunny, dry and in the seventies. Rain was forecast for the rest of the week, so I wanted to enjoy the sunny weather while I could.

Unfortunately, the second I got into the car, clouds covered the sun, which played hide and seek for the rest of the afternoon and even spattered down a bit of rain late in the day. I went anyway, knowing the park’s great in any weather.

As I headed for the Thornton Gap entrance, I saw a few bright color accents at the higher elevations of the mountains I was entering, but mostly the foliage looked about the same as down here – desaturated. The rich green of summer was turning a washed-out green or pale yellow tinged with brown. With luck, the brilliant fall colors our area is noted for will arrive soon, but so far only a few of the early turners were showing them.

Katydids of both genders call by rubbing their forewings together. Males bow out their forewings to create a resonance chamber that intensifies their calls, as shown in this photo of a common true katydid male. Photo by Richard Orr via Flickr.com.
Katydids of both genders call by rubbing their forewings together. Males bow out their forewings to create a resonance chamber that intensifies their calls, as shown in this photo of a common true katydid male. Photo by Richard Orr via Flickr.com.

I headed for Hawskbill Mountain, which, despite all the times I’ve been to the park, I’d never hiked before. I picked the upper section of trails, which offers a short circuit hike. According to my Potomac Appalachian Trail Club book, “Circuit Hikes in Shenandoah National Park,” this hike is “easy,” with only 750 feet of elevation gain, which would be true for the average hiker in good shape. However, my knees started having issues in my early 20s, so I’ve mostly avoided steep hikes, and other health issues have not helped. That day I was just up for a challenge.

Going down is harder on my knees that going up, so I chose the steep segment to start, making the ascent through the hardwood forest that covers the mountain very, very slowly. Without going into gory details, the hike ended up taking twice as long as usual, since I had to stop every few feet on the way up to relax my muscles and catch my breath.

After admiring the view on the platform at the top of Hawksbill, I headed back on the Salamander and Appalachian Trails, which decline slowly down the mountain. The AT especially offers glimpses of the valley below. Although the trail was dotted with fall wildflowers (blue asters and a few others with blooms of gold or white), big boulders and sheer rock face covered with lovely, diverse species of moss and lichen were the highlight for me.

Other than the ubiquitous deer and one yearling bear who skittered across the road on the way up Skyline Drive, I hadn’t seen a lot of wildlife. But I did hear a lot of one insect, the katydid.

At home, the cicadas had gone silent weeks before, and only a few katydids were sounding their mating call intermittently, mostly on warm evenings. The insistent, loud chirping of crickets, the cousins of katydids, had mostly taken over. Up on Hawksbill and throughout the park that day, however, the katydids were in full chorus, their loud chattering filling the air.

Even with Lang Elliott and Wil Hershenberger’s great book and CD “The Songs of Insects,” I find it hard to sort out Virginia’s native grasshoppers (locusts), cicadas, katydids and crickets – all of which use their “chirps, trills and scrapes” to attract mates, as the authors describe it.

Since katydids do their calling high up in the forest canopy in summer and early fall, we rarely get to see them up close. I’ll hazard a guess that what I heard that day was the bright-green common true katydid (Pterophylla camellifolia), which the authors characterize as “the quintessential noisy katydid with which most of us are familiar.” It literally sounds like it’s saying “ka-ty-did, ka-ty-did,” which is not the case for all katydid species.

The sound comes from the katydids rubbing their forewings together, which both males and females do. Males bow out their forewings slightly to create a resonance chamber that intensifies their calls, according to Elliott and Hershenberger, who offer sounds of the common true katydid and other singing insects on their website (musicofnature.org). Katydids hear each other through tympana (hearing organs) on their front legs.

While the chorusing of katydids and their kin can be loud, going to sleep to them at night and waking up to them in the morning is one of my great pleasures this time of year. Most of the birds are quieter and the other sounds of summer are slowly fading as most of our native species wind up their mating season, some heading south or finding places to hibernate. I far prefer this insect chorus to the silence of winter nights that will be coming soon enough.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 340 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.”