Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Today's word - Emergence

The word for today is emergence. It's a really great word and one which, I reckon, really sums up spring. Winter's cold spell puts so much into dormancy and both animals and plants need to find ways to survive this chilly period. They achieve this mostly by shutting themselves off from the environment, either by forming tough, protective outer layers, or by hiding themselves away in the ground or in dark, out of the way places (or both!). Depending on their method of shutting down to survive, increasing day length or increasing temperatures will be needed to bring them out of this torpid state - and sometimes a combination of both.

As I poke around Cape May County, emergence is certainly a word that constantly comes to mind as spring gradually throws the heavy shawl of winter off the countryside; plants emerge from the ground as if by magic, flowers emerge from heavily-protected tree buds, insects emerge from their coccoons and crysalises and birds emerge from eggs. Emergence is taking place everywhere around you, right now, so keep an eye on one or two favorite spots every day and see how the ground turns from bare brown to leafy green and oddball bunches of dead leaves that have been hanging on your trees all winter turn into amazing moths. Check the edges of ponds for dragonflies, emerging from nymph cases that are left gripping the leaves like macabre remains and keep an eye on your backyard birds to see when they start following a regular path with beaks full of juicy insects....

But the word emergence is on my mind for one extra reason this particular year, for it's our turn here in New Jersey for the insanity that is a Periodic Cicada emergence! This is a spectacle that I have never had the opportunity to witness before and the last time it happened around here was in 1996. Spectacular emergences of periodic cicadas are unique to North America and take place as regular as clockwork, based on either a seventeen-year or thirteen-year cycle. These are peculiar periods and scientists generally believe that cycles based on these two prime numbers mean that they create the hardest cycle for potential predatory or parasitic species to mimic. Thus, a potential parasite with an even-number cycle may hit one year, but miss on several others. Each brood of periodic cicada has been given a number - from Brood I to Brood XXIII with most being 17-year species and a few 13-year.

In New Jersey, we get Brood II and Brood X (Brood X is due next in 2021, having emerged last in 2004); Brood II occurs along the East Coast from roughly North Carolina to Connecticut and is perhaps one of the better-known since it affects much of the I-95 corridor from Washington DC to New York. I'm not sure that we will get them out here in Cape May, but I'm hoping. Emergences have been reliably reported in North Carolina, where the soil has reached the magic temperature of 64F - the temperature at which the soil needs to be for an emergence to take place. While there has been many reports of empty nymph cases well north of this, I think these are old cases from last year's annual cicadas, still clinging eerily to tree trunks. So, if you are in the Eastern US, keep an eye out for those crazy red-eyed cicadas and let us know if you have any in your area.

One other thing I ask too: there's quite a bit of sad journalism out there, showing people having fun playing tennis with these insects, as well as any number of 'pest' exterminators looking forward to cashing in on the event by offering their services to rid people of these 'harmful bugs'. While it is true that Periodic Cicadas in large numbers can damage trees as they spend 17 years sucking away at the roots, our ecosystem has evolved to deal with them and healthy trees will survive. At the very most, these guys will give us a certain amount of inconvenience, which I am sure we can live with just once in 17 years right?! Please try and dissuade people from using pesticides (which generally do not specifically target cicadas and will kill friends as well as foe) and, if you do want to protect a valued ornamental in your yard, think about using a hose pipe to push the cicadas off elsewhere, or - if the plant is small enough - you can always use some well-placed netting.

Looking forward to seeing red eyes looking back at me some time soon - but I think we better do something about our soil temperatures first!!

Emerging from its larval exoskeleton, a Dragonhunter prepares to pump up its wings and get airborne. This species will be hunting the Tuckahoe River once we get into June [photo by Mike Crewe].

Freshly emerged moths are fabulous subjects for photography with their unbattered wings still covered in thick scales and their legs and bodies all furry. This Rosy Maple Moth was seen on our Belleplain Wildlife walk last Sunday [photo by Mike Crewe]

Mention spring emergence in plants and few trees offer the remarkable exuberance of a Redbud. The clusters of brilliant cerise flowers burst forth straight from the woody stems, even from the main trunk of older trees. Redbud is not native out here on the coastal plain but is a poplar garden tree [photo by Mike Crewe].

Spring emergence can still be exhilerating even when it is subtle. I found this unfolding Moccasin-flower (or Pink Ladies-slipper Orchid) in local woods last weekend and got a certain satisfaction from knowing that I was almost certainly the first person to witness its emergence. The pink has still yet to develop on the flower and its head still hangs in a protective arch as it pushes up from the sheathing leaves [photo by Mike Crewe].

Recent Bird Sightings
Don't forget to keep a close eye on our eBird link for all the rarity news in the region. This morning saw the point shrouded in mist and fine rain, but a few birds were grounded and a small push of warblers was reported from around Cape May Point this morning. Indigo Buntings and Orchard Orioles have arrived in fair number over the past 24 hours and Chimney Swifts were swarming with mixed swallow and martin flocks to hoover up insects along the dune line at the state park. A Blue-headed Vireo was singing at the Northwood Center midday and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks continue to visit the feeders here. Shorebirds too are heading north and always call more in foggy weather as they try to reorientate. Keep an eye (and ear!) overhead for passing shorebirds, Common Loons and many other birds right now. Rumor has it that we could be getting a SW element to the winds over the next couple of days - birds must surely be on their way!!