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Hello, Handsome



Love Songs

Walking through the woods near the Van Duzen River, something caught my eye low in the weeds along side the trail. On close inspection, I was surprised to see a cicada. I usually associate them with warm weather later in the year. It was pretty subdued so I was able to take plenty of photos up close before I finally decided to leave the poor creature alone.

As always, identifying the animal is harder than acquiring the images. Online I found this "superfamily" of insects has an active fan base (to be expected, as the cicada figures in mythology of both the East and West as a symbol of immortality and rebirth) with websites like Using its nifty online identification tool, I found my subject might be Okanagana vanduzeei. All this makes me wonder just how Van Duzen got to be the namesake of both a river and an insect.

Most cicadas look and act pretty similarly. As larvae they live in the ground drinking fluids from plant roots. When mature, they climb out and abandon their final larval skin (called an exuvia), clinging to low vegetation. The Eastern genus Magicicada, contains the famous 13- and 17-year "locusts," which aren't related to true locusts (order orthoptera, grasshoppers). After a 17-year subterranean existence, the members of a given "brood" emerge in great numbers, all within a few days of each other. They molt, the males congregating to sing their song for only a few weeks. They are probably the longest living non-social insect. Sheer numbers and the long time between emergences overpowers the ability of potential predators to absorb them all, allowing sufficient numbers to mate, lay eggs and carry on their genetic heritage.

The short time they have for boy to meet girl requires some mechanism to increase their chances. That's where singing comes in. Male cicadas are probably the loudest insects. Each species has its own distinctive song to prevent confusion. Some males can generate as much as 120 decibels, loud enough to damage human hearing at close range. You can find recordings of these love songs at


The other day, while waging my perpetual losing battle against garden weeds, I glimpsed a shadow. It was a dragonfly cruising my yard for an afternoon snack. I kept watch and it changed its flight pattern from actively hunting to slowly browsing the bushes near the ground for a place to rest. When it finally landed, I got my camera and got close enough to take a shot. I recognized it as one of the mosaic darners, named for the intricate patterns on their abdomens. It was only later when I downloaded it onto my computer and compared it to my books that I decided it was a male California darner (Rhionaeschna californica). The next day I got a shot of a female. Males of this species are marked with bright blue and black while females are more subdued with green and brown markings.

In the dragonfly world, the males are often more beautiful and the females are often drab by comparison. That's because the valuable females need the protection of camouflage. Mathematically it makes sense. In asocial species, the biology of reproduction places a premium on the females' survival. Male cicadas and crickets are the ones who make themselves obvious by singing, male glow worms fly about when they go courting, exposing themselves to predators, while the females stay hidden in the leaf litter under trees, and male dragonflies are often the more brightly colored. Males are more expendable and therefore saddled with the burden of attracting the ladies. 


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