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A New Note In The Woods
by [?]

THERE is always a new page to be turned in natural history, if one is sufficiently on the alert. I did not know that the eagle celebrated his nuptials in the air till one early spring day I saw a pair of them fall from the sky with talons hooked together. They dropped a hundred feet or more, in a wild embrace, their great wings fanning the air, then separated and mounted aloft, tracing their great circles against the clouds. “Watch and wait” is the naturalist’s sign. For years I have been trying to ascertain for a certainty the author of that fine plaintive piping to be heard more or less frequently, according to the weather, in our summer and autumn woods. It is a note that much resembles that of our small marsh frog in spring,–the hyla; it is not quite so clear and assured, but otherwise much the same. Of a very warm October day I have heard the wood vocal with it; it seemed to proceed from every stump and tree about one. Ordinarily it is heard only at intervals throughout the woods. Approach never so cautiously the spot from which the sound proceeds, and it instantly ceases, and you may watch for an hour without again hearing it. Is it a frog, I said, the small tree-frog, the piper of the marshes, repeating his spring note, but little changed, amid the trees? Doubtless it is, yet I must see him in the very act. So I watched and waited, but to no purpose, till one day, while bee-hunting in the woods, I heard the sound proceed from beneath the leaves at my feet. Keeping entirely quiet, the little musician presently emerged, and, lifting himself up on a small stick, his throat palpitated and the plaintive note again came forth. “The queerest frog ever I saw,” said a youth who accompanied me, and whom I had enlisted to help solve the mystery. No; it was no frog or toad at all, but the small red salamander, commonly called lizard. The color is not strictly red, but a dull orange, variegated with minute specks or spots. This was the mysterious piper, then, heard from May till November through all our woods, sometimes on trees, but usually on or near the ground. It makes more music in the woods in autumn than any bird. It is a pretty, inoffensive creature, walks as awkwardly as a baby, and may often be found beneath stones and old logs in the woods, where, buried in the mould, it passes the winter. (I suspect there is a species of little frog–Pickering’s hyla [footnote: A frequent piper in the woods throughout the summer and early fall.]–that also pipes occasionally in the woods.) I have discovered, also, that we have a musical spider. One sunny April day, while seated on the borders of the woods, my attention was attracted by a soft, uncertain, purring sound that proceeded from the dry leaves at my feet. On investigating the matter, I found that it was made by a busy little spider. Several of them were traveling about over the leaves, as if in quest of some lost cue or secret. Every moment or two they would pause, and by some invisible means make the low, purring sound referred to. Dr. J. A. Alien says the common turtle, or land tortoise, also has a note,–a loud, shrill, piping sound. It may yet be discovered that there is no silent creature in nature.


I turned another (to me) new page in natural history, when, during the past season, I made the acquaintance of the sand wasp or hornet. From boyhood I had known the black hornet, with his large paper nest, and the spiteful yellow-jacket, with his lesser domicile, and had cherished proper contempt for the various indolent wasps. But the sand hornet was a new bird,–in fact, the harpy eagle among insects,–and he made an impression. While walking along the road about midsummer, I noticed working in the towpath, where the ground was rather inclined to be dry and sandy, a large yellow hornet-like insect. It made a hole the size of one’s little finger in the hard, gravelly path beside the roadbed. When disturbed, it alighted on the dirt and sand in the middle of the road. I had noticed in my walks some small bullet-like holes in the field that had piqued my curiosity, and I determined to keep an eye on these insects of the roadside. I explored their holes, and found them quite shallow, and no mystery at the bottom of them. One morning in the latter part of July, walking that way, I was quickly attracted by the sight of a row of little mounds of fine, freshly dug earth resting upon the grass beside the road, a foot or more beneath the path. “What is this?” I said. “Mice, or squirrels, or snakes,” said my neighbor. But I connected it at once with the strange insect I had seen. Neither mice nor squirrels work like that, and snakes do not dig. Above each mound of earth was a hole the size of one’s largest finger, leading into the bank. While speculating about the phenomenon, I saw one of the large yellow hornets I had observed quickly enter one of the holes. That settled the query. While spade and hoe were being brought to dig him out, another hornet appeared, heavy-laden with some prey, and flew humming up and down and around the place where I was standing. I withdrew a little, when he quickly alighted upon one of the mounds of earth, and I saw him carrying into his den no less an insect than the cicada or harvest-fly. Then another came, and after coursing up and down a few times, disturbed by my presence, alighted upon a tree, with his quarry, to rest. The black hornet will capture a fly, or a small butterfly, and, after breaking and dismembering it, will take it to his nest; but here was this hornet carrying an insect much larger than himself, and flying with ease and swiftness. It was as if a hawk should carry a hen, or an eagle a turkey. I at once proceeded to dig for one of the hornets, and, after following his hole about three feet under the footpath and to the edge of the roadbed, succeeded in capturing him and recovering the cicada. The hornet weighed fifteen grains, and the cicada nineteen; but in bulk the cicada exceeded the hornet by more than half. In color, the wings and thorax, or waist, of the hornet were a rich bronze; the abdomen was black, with three irregular yellow bands; the legs were large and powerful, especially the third or hindmost pair, which were much larger than the others, and armed with many spurs and hooks. In digging its hole the hornet has been seen at work very early in the morning. It backed out with the loosened material, like any other animal under the same circumstances, holding and scraping back the dirt with its legs. The preliminary prospecting upon the footpath, which I had observed, seems to have been the work of the males, as it was certainly of the smaller hornets, and the object was doubtless to examine the ground, and ascertain if the place was suitable for nesting. By digging two or three inches through the hard, gravelly surface of the road, a fine sandy loam was discovered, which seemed to suit exactly, for in a few days the main shafts were all started in the greensward, evidently upon the strength of the favorable report which the surveyors had made. These were dug by the larger hornets or females. There was but one inhabitant in each hole, and the holes were two or three feet apart. One that we examined had nine chambers or galleries at the end of it, in each of which were two locusts, or eighteen in all. The locusts of the locality had suffered great slaughter. Some of them in the hole or den had been eaten to a mere shell by the larvæ of the hornet. Under the wing of each insect an egg is attached; the egg soon hatches, and the grub at once proceeds to devour the food its thoughtful parent has provided. As it grows, it weaves itself a sort of shell or cocoon, in which, after a time, it undergoes its metamorphosis, and comes out, I think, a perfect insect toward the end of summer.