The Dog Days of Summer

Cape May Magazine / High Summer 2021

Assuming you picked up your copy of Cape May Magazine right away, you are most likely reading this in the latter end of the Dog Days of Summer. Despite hearing that phrase over the years, I really had no idea what it meant. Entering the Googlesphere on my phone, I consulted the Farmer’s Almanac website to discover that the phrase “Dog Days of Summer” actually refers to a specific period each year: the days from July 3rd to August 11th, owing to the fact that the sun occupies the same region of the sky as Sirius Major, or the Greater Dog constellation. I looked this up because, in fact, one of our local Cicada species is the Dog-day Cicada (Neotibicen canicularis), which now makes a lot more sense to me given its presence from July through September, peaking in August. Back in June, when researching cicadas for this article, I played the call of the Dog-day Cicada on my computer and my wife immediately perked up and said: “That’s the sound of late summer—when it’s f***ing hot” (she’s very colorful with the English language). Indeed, Cicadas are in many ways synonymous with a particular place and time within our annual cycle. For me, the song of the cicada conjures memories of Costa Rica, where bird song yields to cicadas in late morning, and signifies either the time to start the workday (peeling myself from binocular views of exotic multi-colored tanagers), or a mid-day siesta when the heat has become too oppressive for humans yet seems to energize the broad-headed cicadas into a droning chorus that floats upon the gauzy and thick tropical air.

Similarly, the humid air of summer in Cape May can be full of song from numerous species of cicadas. Cicadas come in two main flavors: Periodical Cicadas (all of which are in the genus Magicicada) emerge synchronously every 13 or 17 years, and 2021 was one of those years in New Jersey (although by the time you read this they will have emerged, mated, laid eggs, and died, and not in Cape May County; sorry). The rest of the cicadas are referred to as Annual Cicadas as they are seen every year. Don’t let the name fool you though, as they are just as wildly interesting: requiring anywhere from two to 10 years to reach maturity, they emerge from underground and molt into the fully winged songster we know. Of course, this final stage represents less than 1% of their life, as they spend the rest of their existence in a flightless nymph stage feeding on the xylem of tree root systems. If you’re lucky, you might happen upon an exoskeleton of a recently emerged cicada, clinging to the bark of a host tree. In most cases the adult will be long gone, but if you are really lucky—and especially if you’re looking for them at night—you might be treated to the process of a cicada mid-emergence which is a spectacle to behold.

While upwards of a dozen species or subspecies of cicada occur in New Jersey, only a subset of these make it down to Cape May. For instance, of the three periodical cicada species that regularly occur in the state, we have but one, Magicicada septendecim in our county, the last emergence of which was in 2013 and won’t be again until 2030. Still, we have at least three species of annual cicadas here in paradise, and by the time you read this you can likely pick out one or more by their songs. The most obvious of the three is the eponymous Coastal Scissor-grinder Cicada (Neotibicen latifasciatus), which sings a song that pulses and crescendos like a scissor being sharpened against a grinding stone. The aforementioned Dog-day Cicada sings a long, drawn-out piercing song that rises until the end, where it then falls in pitch and fades out. The song is less specifically descriptive than it is generally a classic sound of summer. The Lyric Cicada (Neotibicen lyricen) sounds similar to the Dog-day but has more vibrato, giving it a trembling quality. Of course, with the exception of the Scissor-grinder Cicada, written descriptions are much more difficult to interpret, and I urge you to go check out some of the numerous websites which host recordings of each species’ songs and calls; they are magnificent. To get you started, head over to one of my favorites: CicadaMania.com. Yup, that’s the for-real name. Oh, and don’t get me started on Cicada Killers (qu’est-ce que c’est?)…for that you’ll have to wait until the fall issue. In the meantime, enjoy listening to the sounds of summer, and getting to know your diverse array of singing cicadas.