Thursday, May 23, 2013

Cicadas in Westchester? Maybe. Maybe Not.

Cicadas took over my neighborhood, and most of Staten Island, in 1962. We called them 17-year-locusts and we used a magnifying glass to burn holes in the discarded exoskeletons. I was 8.

By 1979, I had learned that they were really cicadas, not locusts, but I was living in the Adirondacks, beyond their range, so I missed them.

Seventeen years later, in 1996, I was working as a reporter in northern Westchester. In May, a press release came into the newsroom from researchers in Connecticut. It said that they were sure that the so-called Brood II of the periodical cicada was extirpated from Westchester but, just in case, let us know if you hear of any reports.

I knew by then that a great, obscure naturalist, a Staten Islander named William T. Davis (1862-1945), had traveled throughout the region in 1894 to witness and study the emergence of the so-called Brood II. 

So I called the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences, which had William T. Davis’s journals in its archives, and asked someone to check his entries from May and June 1894, in case he had been to Westchester.

In fact, he had, they told me. They found an entry saying that Davis had found cicadas near Colabaugh Pond, in Cortlandt. I wrote a column about it, and reported that scientists were fairly sure that there were no more cicadas in Westchester County.

Then on June 4, I got a phone call in the newsroom. What happened next was the subject of a subsequent column, published on June 6, 1996. Here it is:

Cicadas arrive in Westchester

The scientists wanted to be wrong about this one - and they were.

Last month, several researchers studying 17-year-cicadas put out word that they were interested in hearing from Hudson Valley residents who found cicadas in their neighborhoods.

But Westchester County residents need hardly bother, they said at the time. No one in Westchester reported encountering cicadas 17 years ago - when they last emerged - and the insects were likely to be extinct locally.

But it turns out that they aren't.

Yesterday morning, cicadas were singing their weird song in at least two pockets of woods in the Mount Airy section of Cortlandt, near Colabaugh Pond.

Roland Asp, who found them in his yard, pointed to a couple of cicadas clinging to the branches of tiny spruce trees. He looked on the trunk of a maple tree and found another, milky white - it had apparently just shed its larval skin and hadn't taken on the characteristic black, brown and orange color of an adult cicada. Nearby, hundreds of discarded skins were piled at the base of an oak.

`` Saturday, this whole tree was crawling, '' he said.

By yesterday, they had ascended to the leaves, which is part of their odd life cycle.

Seventeen-year-cicadas burrow out of the ground on an evening in late May, shed their skins and metamorphose into adults. The adults climb trees and within a couple of days the males start to sing, to attract a female. By mid-June, the cicadas mate and the females immediately lay their eggs in slits in tree branches.

The adults die in late June. In August, the eggs hatch. The tiny larvae fall to the ground and creep into the soil, where they feed on fluid in tree roots. There they stay, waiting for nobody-knows-what signal until they emerge again on an evening in late May or early June - 17 years hence.

`` Friday night, I heard them everywhere - mainly walking through the grass, '' Asp said.

But had they started to sing yet?

`` Not a word, '' he said.

He was standing in the yard of his small house at 10 a.m. A fast brook curved through the yard. A snapping turtle lumbered along the road. Birds were quiet. There was a pause in the conversation.

Then the noise in the leaves began. At times, it was like a power-saw in the distance. At other times it sounded like a chorus of other-worldly voices chanting a high-pitched waaaaaaaaw-waaaaaaaaw-waaaaaaaaaw, holding the notes for many seconds.

In New Haven, Chris Maier, an entomologist with the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, was happy to hear about cicadas in Cortlandt. He was one of the scientists who thought they were gone from the county - probably because development had usurped their range.

In retrospect, though, it makes sense that cicadas still live near Colabaugh Pond in Cortlandt. In early June 1894, a man who spent his life studying cicadas - William T. Davis - traveled to Cortlandt from Staten Island.

`` Not far from Colabaugh Pond, we found them quite numerous, '' he wrote in his journal.

Maier said he'll make his own cicada search in Westchester tomorrow. He was especially intrigued that a Yonkers resident named Alicja Sullivan reported that she found two cicadas in her yard, in the city's Bryn Mawr section.

`` It's good to know that they're still doing well there, '' said Maier.

Here's a map of where cicadas have emerged already in 2013. They will be back again in 2030.


Blogger John Keil said...

Red-eyed Magicicadas have definitely returned to Colabaugh Pond this year, and we took our children to see and hear them this morning. Thank you very much for this post.

11:02 AM  
Anonymous Vera said...

This is cool!

1:49 AM  

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