SCOTT SHALAWAY There's plenty to enjoy in August



I've always considered August the slowest month for nature writing. It's the only time of year I sometimes struggle coming up with ideas. It's usually hot and humid, so I don't enjoy the outdoors as much as I usually do. My favorite trails are overgrown with thorny thickets and grape tangles. Birds are quiet, the nesting season is over, and migration is just beginning.
And yet life goes on. So I made a list of things that catch my attention in August. My younger daughter's birthday tops the list; Emma turns 15 on the 21st.
Turns out, though, that a birthday party is just one of many ways I busy myself in August.
It may sound odd, but the end of summer is a great time to garden. Nurseries and garden centers put remaining perennials, trees and shrubs on sale, sometimes as much as 25 percent to 50 percent off. Discounts increase as the season progresses, but selection gets more limited. So I try to visit my favorite garden centers every week to get the best deals. Milkweeds, blazing star, coneflowers and asters are among the perennials I've successfully planted in late summer.
In fact, I prefer planting perennials now comparedwith spring. I save money, and it's easier on the plants. Late-summer plantings acclimate to local conditions throughout the fall and winter and grow vigorously the following spring.
Animal life
Another August highlight is the hummingbird moth that appears in flower gardens. Hummingbird moths are a type of sphinx moth. At a glance, they look like a large bee, with antennae and a long beak, which is actually an uncoiled proboscis. When hovering above flowers while feeding, they're easy to recognize and easy to confuse with hummers.
And of course, female ruby-throated hummingbirds and their young swarm nectar feeders in August. Adult males have already begun heading south, but females and young remain well into September. So do not take nectar feeders down on Labor Day.
After dark, August nights come alive with the sounds of insects, particularly the songs of katydids, large green grasshoppers noted for extremely long antennae that arch backward over the length of the body. Their green, textured outer wings resemble leaves and provide almost perfect camouflage for hiding in the bushes by day.
But the best way to recognize a katydid at night is by ear. Males sing from early evening well into the night. The song is harsh and burry and sounds something like "Ch-ch" or "Ch-ch-ch" or "ch-ch-ch-ch." The phrases are repeated about once a second, and the rhythm suggests the insect's name: "Ka-ty, ka-ty-did or kay-ty-did-did." Sometimes several individuals sing in unison to form a genuine chorus.
Mysterious creatures
Another common nocturnal singer remains a mystery to most people. Snowy tree crickets generate a seemingly endless series of high-pitched melodic chirps that to many almost define a summer night.
Though often heard, snowy tree crickets are almost impossible to find without a diligent search. During the day they feed and rest amid the foliage of trees and shrubs. Thanks to their small size and cryptic pale-green color, they blend in with their surroundings. And at night, their song has a ventriloquistic effect.
I mentioned at the outset that bird activity slows in August, but there's still plenty of action, especially at bird baths. Just minutes ago, I spotted a hooded warbler in the bath beneath my office window. Fresh water is the key to attracting birds in midsummer. They drink, bathe and even soak to cool off. Just be sure to refresh the water at least every three days to disrupt mosquito life cycles and minimize the risk of west Nile virus.
And don't discount the value of feeders in the summer. A flock of a dozen goldfinches will use the nyjer feeders all day long, and there are always at least a few chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers at the feeders containing nuts and sunflower kernels.
August may be hot, humid and uncomfortable, but to a curious naturalist, it's never boring.
sshalaway@aol.com

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