Sunday, October 17, 2010

In Search of the Wild Field Cricket

As a child growing up in Olympia, I spent a great deal of time playing outdoors. Yet I don't recall ever seeing or hearing crickets. I never even knew we had crickets in Thurston County. That is why it was such a delightful surprise when I moved to a Tumwater mobile home park to discover that along with some really neat human neighbors, I had acquired some really cool insect ones as well, from the species Gryllus pennsylvanicus - Fall Field Crickets. As the name implies, these crickets are usually found in fields, but I can personally attest that they also flourish in mobile home parks.
For several years I have kept a list of all unusual or notable nature sightings from around my home. The list records the dates of when certain animal species are first heard or seen every year; the first frogs chorusing from a nearby wetland, the first male Rufous hummingbird, etc. Reviewing this log, I note that the first Fall Field Cricket is reliably heard between the last week of July and the first week of August. This year the date was August 4th.

I have always cherished the crickets' songs (one recent and memorable hot August night, my entire house - and heart - resonated with the sound), but I've rarely ever actually seen one of these secretive insects. Occasionally I've glimpsed a cricket out in the open, but I'd never tracked one down in its habitat until about a month ago.

Since they seemed to be more active after sunset, one evening I took up my trusty flashlight and went "cricketing by ear". It wasn't easy. These creatures are masters of concealment and ventriloquism. Not surprising, since the noisy males would provide tasty morsels for inquisitive small mammals, birds, or other predators. In the red landscape rock beneath my neighbor's metal awning (great acoustics), I distinctly perceived two different crickets. Even though I knew they were only a few feet away from me, I still couldn't locate the source of their chirps. If I stood in one place, they sounded like they were in front of me. One step forward, however, and I could swear they were behind me. I never did pinpoint their location.

Roaming the mobile home park, cognizant of my reputation as the neighborhood bug nutter, I could hear crickets all around, but couldn't find them. They were hidden in rockeries or under groundcover foliage. Most of the calls seemed to be emanating from right next to the curb, where the insects were holed up in the gap between the cement sidewalk and the street asphalt. Eventually, I zeroed in on a large, dark insect nestled tightly against the sidewalk rise. Victory! Taking some photos, I really wanted to see what this critter looked like.

Downloading the hard-won camera shots to the computer, what they revealed surprised me. The cricket is an amazing looking animal! From its long antennae, round head, circular garnet eyes, black leather neck choker, yellow wing stripes, cerci and ovipositor, it is obviously a miracle of natural adaptation. But wait! What's an ovipositor doing on a male cricket? An ovipositor is the specialized organ that female insects use to lay their eggs through. The ovipositor on a female cricket is the long, dark, needle-like apparatus poking out dead center from the rear of its abdomen. But this cricket was supposed to be a male. I had tracked it down by ear, and only males "cricket". What had happened?

After mulling for a bit, I was forced to conclude that the female cricket, attracted by a sequestered male's stridulations, had been very near to consummating the procreative act with him when I came along. A male cricket had foiled me once again.

A few weeks later, determined to capture an image of a male, I set out anew with flashlight in hand. I was haunting street gutters when a neighbor out walking his dog saw me and inquired, "Did you lose something?" Explaining my quest, he expressed mild interest in my pursuit. He stood nearby until I discovered a male cricket deep in a crevice next to the sidewalk. I asked my neighbor if he would hold the flashlight and shine it down into where the cricket was hiding, so I could take a picture. He agreed. His previous indifference evaporated when he caught sight of the insect, proclaiming excitedly, "There it is! I see it!" But I still couldn't get a decent shot. Too deep.
As summer wore into autumn, I had pretty much relinquished my goal of photographing a male cricket. The advent of shorter days and cooler nights had reduced the trillings in the park to a precious few. Yet finally in mid-October, at the tail end of cricket season, I heard a very loud chirping directly in front of my house. Investigating the source of the ruckus, I was gratified to identify a male cricket, conspicuously wing-rubbing his amorous serenade into the late afternoon air.

"Kind of risky", I thought, but then I noticed her. The male was stridulating madly to a nearby lady love. Listening intently to his aria through eardrums in her front legs, she approached him tentatively, coyly, then turned away. But unable to withstand his ardency, she soon joined him in discreetly repairing to the shrubbery, from whence emitted a quite different kind of chirping (which I imagined as a sort of drunken ecstasy) as the deed was done.

Two frosty nights later, cricket song ceased from the mobile home park entirely. After more than two months of nearly non-stop activity, the insects had gained their well-deserved rest. But deep within the sandy soil, the females' oviposited eggs abide, waiting for the planet to tilt on its axis once more. Waiting, for the life-giving warmth of the sun to pour upon the earth. Waiting, for the cycle of life and death to begin again.

Nancy Partlow
Observing Insect Lives by Donald Stokes
The Songs of Insects by Lang Elliott & Will Hershberger

Monday, October 4, 2010

At Tongue Point: Goodbye to Summer

It is the end of September. Glen and I are sitting at the viewpoint at Tongue Point, a rocky protrusion of land poking north into the Straits of Juan de Fuca, just west of Port Angeles. We have been camping at this lovely site for a few days, enjoying the last days of a fading summer.

Around dusk we decided to finish our day by taking our camp cooked bean tacos and sitting at the outlook. This day has been a dream of a sunny day, now fading into dusk. The sunset in the west is sensational. I remark that this is a watercolorist’s dream (I dabble in watercolors); Glen shoots back, “Or a nightmare!” And I have to laugh. How is possible to catch and hold such unearthly colors?

This place is that rare thing along the the Washington seacoast: an easily accessible rocky shore. This is very different than the long sandy stretches of Ocean Shores or Long Beach: here the salt water from the Pacific rides east for 60 miles in great rolling swells that crash upon the rocky shore. All night, bedded down in our warm camp beds, we hear and feel the BOOM POUND THUMP of big swells pushing in a full tide and breaking at last on the stony reaches of the point.

These rocky beaches provide an excellent place for a sea garden of kelp to establish itself and flourish. We were here last spring for a brief visit and there was no sign of this garden; we have the photo to prove it. Upon our return this fall, the bull kelp is thick, floating and swaying some 20 feet from shore.

Kelp is a deciduous plant, like many of our leafy land trees. It starts from a spore deep down in the intertidal floor which sprouts in spring and puts out rootlike holdfasts which anchor to the rocky substrate . The plant then sends up its stipe at an incredible rate (up to 10 inches a day) growing towards the sun. Finally, it reaches the sun, and starts to photosynthesize, making carbohydrates which fuel its continued vigorous growth. It forms a bulb or float, which keeps it at the ever-changing tidal surface. It sends out long blades to collect even more sunlight. Throughout the summer, it grows and grows at a phenomenal rate: some kelp reach 200 feet from holdfast to bulb. Finally in this season of late summer, it reaches the end of its life, loosens its grip on the rocks and the tide casts it up on the beach in great heaping piles, just like the maple leaves in our front yard. Here many beach critters hide in it, and feast on it, helping to break it down, decay and provide nutrients to the next generation.

During its summer life, the kelp provides a floating mat island, and many birds take advantage of it; several gulls with crops full after a day’s feeding, perch on the kelp, facing west and watch the sun sink into the hills. A lone Great Blue Heron manages to balance itself on the mats !*! and continues to fish even in the last minutes of light. The bobbing bulbs of kelp look like so many seal heads and we are fooled, over and over again.

The rocks provide another feeding habitat that many rock shorebirds specialize in using. This is the country of Black Oystercatchers: as we watch the sunset, they vocalize back and forth from rock to rock, a mournful piping call.

This is a season of migration and transitions: we watch Pigeon Guillemots in their white winter coats, getting ready to fly to the north Pacific for the winter. Other birds come in to stay: small bands of Scoters and other seaducks move into the Straits for the winter.

This is a place of breathtaking beauty. This is a time of saying goodbye to summer. There are so many feelings: a feeling of mourning for summer lost, of reveling in in the beauty laid out before us, of anticipation for the change of the season. My heart is full.

The sun continues to sink, painting the sky and the water, too, in ever-changing colors. We watch and wait, until finally, the water turns black.


Salt Creek County Park (Tongue Point), Clallam County, Washington
close up kelp from
Black Oystercatcher from