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Northland Nature - August belongs to the insects

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By this time of month, we're getting a good look at what August has to offer. Our days have been warm, but not as hot as earlier. Later sunrises revealing dew-covered cool mornings that warm in the afternoons and in the evenings, we note earlier sunsets.

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August is early harvest and we gather something new from the garden each day. Blackberries are picked, along with late raspberries and chokecherries along the woods' edge.

August is also a time when mushrooms become more common in yards, parks and forests. With adequate moisture, new ones pop up frequently.

And in the roadsides and fields, the tall sunflowers, goldenrods and asters continue to bloom and proliferate. By the end of the month, I usually locate at least 10 kinds of each.

August is also when we note the silence from the birds. Where a dozen kinds of birds sang a month ago, we now hear only the persistent red-eyed vireos and wood peewees.

This morning's avian silence of late summer is amazing, but in the warmth of the afternoon, this void will be largely filled by the sounds of others, the insects.

August belongs to the insects and it is now when they sing for much of the same reasons as birds did earlier.

Recently I took time to listen to their messages as I spent a couple of hours on a trail during the afternoon. Birds, though present, were not singing.

A group of cedar waxwings attacked a loaded chokecherry tree. A flock of blackbirds, probably of a couple species, flew over.

A family of chickadees hosting a few warblers moved through trailside trees. And a pair of goldfinches gathered fluffy seeds from thistles. Unlike other birds, these yellow and black "wild canaries" wait until now to nest.

Though the birds did chirp and call to each other, they were mostly without sound. But the grasses, shrubs and small trees along the trail were full of other songsters.

After growing through the early summer, the insects have now reached maturity and are in the reproductive phase of life. Many of them call and sing through the afternoon and evening.

Crickets are most common, but their cousins, the katydids, chime in, too. Both serenade in the grasslands while cicadas provide arboreal tunes. Though their method of song production is quite different from the way birds sing, the reasons are similar: attracting mates and proclaiming territories. Male crickets and katydids use rasping organs on legs and wings to scratch out tunes (known as stridulating) while the cicadas vibrate abdominal membranes to make their loud sounds.

Dark field crickets were chirping among the leaves on the soil. They were joined by their tiny cousins, the ground crickets, which produced a background twittering noise.

Occasionally, I heard the higher-pitched and louder trill of the tree crickets from the shrubs. These light-colored crickets are an often-overlooked member of the summer singers. Katydids teamed up with the crickets in this scene. (Katydids are well known for their sound making. They get their name from a southern species that calls a three-syllable "k-t-did" sound from the trees at night.)

These green insects look like grasshoppers with long antennae. I heard two kinds: the smaller bush katydids gave clicking and buzzing sounds, while the larger angle-winged katydids produced a lisping call. (These become more of a creaking sound as the afternoon advances to evening.)

Our katydids seldom call in trees, but it is here that the loudest insect resides. Their song sounds much like a buzzing saw. Indeed, they are often called buzz-saw or dog-day cicadas. A few weeks ago, another one was calling its chirping sound. The Northland has only a couple of kinds of cicadas, not like the various vocal ones of the south.

Not all the insects of August are this noisy. Grasshoppers and their cousins, the locusts, hopped and flew over the trail. Though the large diversity of butterflies of last month is over, I still saw a half dozen kinds, and a couple of dragonflies hunted in the summer day. August afternoons differ greatly from early summer, but the large number of insects gives us plenty to see and hear.

Retired teacher Larry Weber of Carlton is the author of several books, including "Butterflies of the North Woods," "Spiders of the North Woods" and "Webwood." You may contact him at news@pinejournal.com.

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