Closing the Book on Prairie Cicadas

by Carl Strang

The prairie cicada is a small (1-inch) insect that occurs in a few remnant prairies in northeast Illinois. Work by Dennis Nyberg and associates at the University of Illinois Chicago has revealed much of what is known about them in the state. I first gained experience with this species a few years ago at the UIC’s Woodworth Prairie in northern Cook County, then quickly discovered them in two DuPage County locations. I expected then that I would find them consistently in prairie remnants, but this has not proven to be the case.

Prairie cicada, June 2017

Recently I finished checking the last of the remnant prairies I know about in the Chicago region, and have not added any more locations to the UIC group’s 8 sites (they also listed 3 sites in downstate counties). I have not found them anywhere in the region’s Indiana or Wisconsin counties.

All the sites are small, so all the populations are small and vulnerable. Mated females do not disperse beyond their little prairie plots, as far as anyone has been able to determine. If the species is to survive in the region, the landholders (mainly forest preserve districts and railroads) will need to continue managing those sites so that the prairies can persist, and prairie cicadas with them.

Closing the Book on Protean Shieldbacks

by Carl Strang

The protean shieldback is the most common native predaceous katydid in the Chicago region. Because of their broad diet, they can develop quickly in the spring. They begin singing in June, the males broadcasting their extended, high-pitched rattles in open woodlands, as well as prairies with at least a little woody vegetation.

Male protean shieldback in singing posture.

At first, they begin to sing in the late afternoon from hidden locations near the ground. When it becomes dark, they climb up onto open perches, often on woody stems. As their season progresses, they begin to sing later, until a few begin at dusk and most wait until dark.

This year I learned that they are more abundant than I had realized. I need the SongFinder, a pitch-lowering electronic device, to hear most of them. With that final lesson, I sought them out in portions of my 22-county Chicago region where I had not found them before. That mission was successful, the final 15 counties resulting in some late-night returns home. At this writing, they still are going strong.

A Mystery Solved: Miogryllus!

by Carl Strang

In 2014 I first heard what sounded to my ear like a singing striped ground cricket, but it seemed too early in the season. It was June 21, at Hoosier Prairie Nature Preserve in Lake County, Indiana. I made a recording, then moved on to the Indiana Kankakee Sands, where I heard it again. Though these sites are a bit south of my DuPage County home, I didn’t hear striped ground crickets in DuPage until July 13. The next year I heard the same odd songs, this time at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, in the middle of Will County, immediately south of DuPage. This was even earlier, on June 10. Again I made a recording. And again, I did not hear striped ground crickets in DuPage until, as it happened, July 13. In 2016 I went down to Midewin on June 28, and heard the same early, striped-ground-cricket like songs. This year, the same story, Midewin, June 23. This time, though, it seemed to me that the songs were not quite right for striped ground crickets. They seemed too precise, too even and strong. Here is a recording I made in the same location on June 28:

I went back and listened to my earlier recordings, reviewed my list of hypothetical singing insect species for the Chicago region, then checked reference recordings of their songs. The early songs did sound different from my recordings of later-season striped ground crickets, an example here:

The odd, early songs seemed to be a match for one of the hypotheticals, the eastern striped cricket, Miogryllus verticalis. Furthermore, references indicated that M. verticalis is an early season species, most abundant in June. I drove back down to Midewin on June 28. Trying to zero in on the singers was very frustrating; they seemed to have a ventriloquial quality. Eventually I flushed out and captured a female cricket near one of the singing mystery males. Looking through the clear plastic cup that held her, I could see that she was indeed an eastern striped cricket. I took a couple photos looking down into the cup. It was well that I did, because when I tried to get her positioned for a shot from the side, she gave me the slip and I was unable to recapture her.

Female eastern striped cricket, dorsal view

She was just a little smaller than a spring field cricket, which species was sharing the grassy meadow where Miogryllus were abundant. This confirms that eastern striped crickets are established in the southwestern portion of the 22-county area I define as the Chicago region. They would seem to represent yet another example of a range extension northward by a singing insect species.

Bioblitz 2017

by Carl Strang

This year’s bioblitz in the series organized by the Indiana Academy of Sciences took place on June 10-11 at the White River Woods and McVey Memorial Forest, two sites near Muncie. This early in the season I did not expect much in the way of singing insects. Spring trigs were common, so I gained more experience with them, but there was a surprising lack of spring field crickets.

Green-striped grasshoppers still were displaying at McVey.

A Roesel’s katydid at White River Woods

I joined Jeff Holland’s Purdue University group at their light station in the forest at McVey, assisting as a moth spotter. A few photos from that night follow.

Banded tussock moth

Io moths, when resting, do not show their dramatic hind-wing eye spots.

Barred granite

A few walnut sphinxes were attracted to the light.

A couple black-sided pygmy grasshoppers also made an appearance.

Male black-sided pygmy grasshoppers have a distinctive white, black and brown pattern.

Females are all dark. The pygmy grasshoppers are distinguished not only by their small size, but also by the pronotum’s extension over much of the abdomen.

 

Closing the Book on Sulfur-wings

by Carl Strang

The sulfur-winged grasshopper is an early season species that I wanted to close out this year, in my regional survey of singing insects. Though it probably occurs in all 22 of the counties in my survey region, it is common only on soils heavy in gravel or sand. I targeted 3 counties with such soils where I had not yet found this crepitating (wing-rattling) grasshopper: Walworth in Wisconsin, LaPorte in Indiana, and Berrien in Michigan.

Success came first at the Lulu Lake natural area in Walworth County. I did not find it in the Nature Conservancy portion of the property, but gravel-hill openings in the forest on the state nature preserve side proved to have a good population.

One of the series of photos documenting sulfur-winged grasshoppers at Lulu Lake.

Subsequently I found them in the Lake Michigan coastal zone in LaPorte and Berrien Counties. In the process I learned a final lesson from the grasshoppers: they don’t like loose dune sand, and need to be sought a little farther inland, where plants and the accumulation of organic matter have made the soil more stable. That closes the book on sulfur-winged grasshoppers as far as my survey is concerned, and I will put my time into other species at this point of the season in future years.

The updated Chicago region sulfur-winged grasshopper map, marking counties where I have found it.

 

Stewardship Begins

by Carl Strang

Earlier this spring I began my work as volunteer steward of McCormick Woods, the main forest at St. James Farm Forest Preserve. The stewards provide backup and extension of the ecosystem restoration work by Forest Preserve District staff. The McCormick Woods ecosystem is the highest quality forest in the western half of DuPage County, and the District has put considerable effort into its restoration, but there still is plenty for volunteers to do. Invasive shrubs and herbaceous plants are established in significant portions of the forest, there supplanting the diverse native plant and animal community.

I have had the help of two other volunteers, Wayne and Bob, and we have made a good start. We began by focusing on garlic mustard, an invasive and allelopathic biennial, in two large areas where native plant diversity is excellent and garlic mustard is not yet well established. We took the bushels of pulled garlic mustard plants and dumped them in two locations, hoping to make progress against the forest’s biggest threat: goutweed.

Goutweed is a perennial member of the parsley family (Apiaceae, formerly Umbelliferae).

Goutweed was imported from its native Europe and commonly is planted as an ornamental ground cover. Apparently it was used in the landscape around the McCormick residence at St. James Farm. Unfortunately it spread into the adjacent forest, and significant colonies of the plant have supplanted the native forest flora in places. Repeated applications of herbicides by District staff may have slowed it down, but do not kill it. Stronger herbicides that would kill it also would threaten the trees.

I selected goutweed colonies in two locations as garlic mustard dump sites. I wanted to see if masses of pulled plants might smother the goutweed, hoping also that allelochemicals might leach out and inhibit goutweed growth. The goutweed has proven to be resilient.

Goutweed leaves pushed up through the piles of garlic mustard in the first location, which had not received an herbicide spray earlier in the spring.

The second dump was in goutweed that had been hit by herbicide. It is too soon to say whether the results are any better.

At some point I want to take measurements to see how fast the goutweed colonies are expanding, and whether these efforts slow that growth.

Now that the garlic mustard pulling is done for the year, we have shifted to another location and are cutting common buckthorn and Amur honeysuckle. That part of the forest still has a good diversity of native woodland plants hanging on beneath the invasive shrubs.

Here is part of the area we have cleared. Increased light levels should allow native plants to expand their populations.

We are creating a brush pile of the cuttings that later will be burned.

There are no goutweed patches in that part of the forest. Burning brush piles would kill the goutweed beneath them.

I was inspired to take on the stewardship job by the diversity of life in McCormick Woods. Some recent photos:

Shooting stars have popped up here and there where they were released by the removal of invasive brush.

Giant swallowtails appear occasionally at St. James Farm.

A recent addition to the preserve species list was this Zabulon skipper.

Searching for Life

by Carl Strang

This spring I have been pressing a search for coral-winged grasshoppers, and it has been disappointing. This singing insect historically was found in a few locations in my 22-county survey area, almost always in May, but none of those locations proved to have the species. Other places that match the habitat descriptions in the literature likewise have been lacking in coral-wings.

Though depression as a response to this experience has been tempting, an antidote has been thoughts about SETI. Many people, years of time, and much expensive technology have been devoted to the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. Furthermore, despite much thought and searching, life of any sort beyond the Earth thus far has been elusive. Balanced against all that, my frustrated search for a species that globally is in no danger seems a trivial matter.

In compensation, I have been getting into some beautiful areas and seeing wondrous sights.

For example, I found hairy puccoons and common blue-eyed grass at Illinois Beach State Park on May 13.

Wood betony also was in peak bloom on the 13th.

From above, wood betony has a delightful pinwheel shape.

Near the edge of the savanna at Illinois Beach State Park, this dung beetle busily rolled a deer fecal pellet.

An Indiana site added Indian paintbrush to the wildflower mix.

 

The Miller Woods Trail of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was flanked by banks of wild lupines on May 16.

Scattered hairy puccoons provided delightful contrast with the lupines.

With such wonderful life all around, it’s hard to be too disappointed by the failure to find a single species.

 

St. James Farm in April

by Carl Strang

April is a month of accelerating change, and this was evident on several levels at St. James Farm this year. Nevertheless, some observations were continuations of patterns established over the winter.

This coyote frequented the meadows along the entrance drive, and one day was joined by another, presumably its mate, distinguished by a significantly redder coat.

A second check of the great horned owl nest, in mid-April, found the adult still present. At this point it would be brooding young, which I have not yet seen.

Many plants begin to bloom in April.

Draba verna, the vernal whitlow grass, was a species I had not noticed last year.

Now that I am in my second year of observations, I can make comparisons. The median first flower date for 33 species was 3 days earlier than last year, not much different.

Spring azures were the first butterflies to appear, on April 2.

A new extension of the regional trail is being constructed through the forest this year.

The route was staked, and later cleared of trees.

I think it is important for the trail system to show off our better ecosystems. This route could have been much more damaging to the vegetation, but I would prefer that it not be so wide. I am hopeful that the new trail’s positives will outweigh its detrimental side.

 

Museum Visits

by Carl Strang

Planning for the coming singing insects field season has been one of my major occupations this winter. I am looking forward to visiting many new sites, and hope to find some of the species that historically occurred in the Chicago region but which have eluded me so far. Part of that process has been to visit insect collections, gaining information on those species and taking photographs that will help me recognize them.

While at the Purdue University and Illinois Natural History Survey collections, the two museums I have visited so far, I also photographed specimens of species that I have heard but not yet photographed in the field. This will enhance next year’s edition of the guide.

The northern mole cricket is one of those species. This front-end view shows why that cricket is well named.

A note on one specimen said it was collected while flying around in someone’s garage. I had not been aware that northern mole crickets can fly.

Another plan for the upcoming guide is to add pages for the species that have been documented in the Chicago region, but which I have not yet found. Researching those species is getting me better prepared to find them.

There is a Kankakee County record for the common virtuoso katydid, in or near the Illinois Kankakee Sands preserve. That is one species I will be seeking this year.

Walker’s cicada has been collected in a few locations around the region. I need to be alert for its distinctive song in the coming season.

The coral-winged grasshopper will be one of the earliest species for me to seek this spring. They overwinter as nymphs, and have been found mainly in May in past years. I have several locations to check.

The large spots on the sides of the wings, along with the golden wing edges and brightly colored hind wings, are distinguishing features of coral-winged grasshoppers.

Female delicate meadow katydids have unusually long ovipositors. This example will help me distinguish them from green-faced individuals of the dusky-faced meadow katydid. I have not given up hope for the delicate meadow katydid in the region.

Another species I still hope to find is the slender conehead. This one, collected at Illinois Beach State Park in 1906, shows the main distinguishing features of that wetland species: the front of the cone is all black, and there is a right-angle bend in the contour of the pronotum’s posterior edge.

All of this is getting me fired up, but I still have two months to wait. Maybe another museum visit is in order…

 

St. James Farm, Lately

by Carl Strang

This has been a relatively slow winter at St. James Farm Forest Preserve. There has been little snow, so my tracking has been limited. Coyotes have been covering the preserve, and the relatively few deer tracks have not revealed a consistent pattern. That in itself suggests buck group, and eventually in January I saw them: a huge buck, a good-sized but clearly subordinate forkhorn, and a newly minted buck fawn. Since that first sighting, I have spotted them twice more in widely separated parts of the preserve.

The boss buck

The boss buck

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the great horned owls’ nest tree of last winter was a casualty of the autumn’s controlled burn. My practice is to wait until mid-February to do the annual nest search. I had my inventory of candidate cavities, made last winter, but it didn’t take long to find the incubating female on last year’s red-tailed hawk nest. In a related note, I spotted a newly available candidate cavity along one of my monitoring routes. The top of an old oak recently broke off, leaving an open top of sufficient diameter that great horneds might consider it. A forest this old probably has some equilibrium of candidate cavities as old ones are lost and new ones form.

The new candidate nesting cavity

The new candidate nesting cavity

With that task out of the way, I decided to see if I could find a little nest in the area where the hooded warbler had his territory last summer. He has been a regular there in recent years, but as far as I know, no one has seen a female or young. I found that his territory has scattered bush honeysuckles and lots of Japanese barberries, bad for forest quality but probably good from the warbler’s viewpoint. Descriptions of hooded warbler nesting suggest that barberry would be an ideal platform. I didn’t find a nest, and ended the search when I found a dense thicket of barberries, with a few multiflora roses mixed in, at least 100 feet in diameter, worthy of Brer Rabbit.

 Part of the thorny tangle

Part of the thorny tangle

As I circumnavigated this patch, which is in a part of the forest with relatively dramatic surface relief, I noticed a few tipped trees whose fall had turned up rounded stones in the soil.

Rounded stones exposed by a tipped tree’s root tangle

Rounded stones exposed by a tipped tree’s root tangle

This suggests that the preserve’s forested hills may in fact be kames, places within the melting continental glacier where the meltwater piled its flow-rounded stones into mounds. St. James Farm is very close to the western edge of the Valparaiso Moraine.

 

« Older entries

%d bloggers like this: