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.

 

Singing Insects Guide 2017

by Carl Strang

The main product of my singing insects research is a guide, Singing Insects of the Chicago Region. Each year I update the guide with new information from the field season just past. The Chicago region for this project includes 22 counties from southeastern Wisconsin around to Berrien County, Michigan. Singing insects are defined here as the cicadas, crickets, katydids, and members of three grasshopper subfamilies with sound displays that people can hear (though the songs of some are so high pitched that only young people can hear them unaided). There are around 100 species, though some I haven’t found outside historical records.

title-page-2017

The guide is available for free as a highly compressed PDF document that nevertheless occupies over 5MB, thanks to the many photos. There are maps showing current and historical county records, graphical devices indicating seasonal and time-of-day information, and descriptions of the insects and their songs. Information is presented as well on conservation concerns and ongoing range expansions. To receive the current version of the guide and get on the mailing list for future updates, send your request to me at wildlifer@aol.com.

Where There’s Smoke

by Carl Strang

Mid-November brought forest preserve district crews to St. James Farm to conduct controlled burns in the forest. These burns are a normal part of oak woodland ecology in northeastern Illinois, and they help control invasive plants. Occasionally the consequences of the burn extend beyond the brief time when the flames consume the dry leaf litter on the ground, and I noted two such incidents this time around.

Carpenter ants commonly hollow out the base of a tree as they tunnel through the dead wood at the core. If the accumulated sawdust catches a spark from the controlled burn, a slow growing smoldering coal can expand to the point where it consumes a significant amount of the remaining wood.

A victim of that phenomenon was the large white oak that harbored the great horned owl nest last winter.

A victim of that phenomenon was the large white oak that harbored the great horned owl nest last winter.

There had been a larger live stem, and a smaller dead stem (the fractured one in the photo) where the nest had been. The live stem’s base was thinned by the growing coal to the point where it went down, taking the nest stem with it.

The same burn had the remarkable effect of catching in another tree, already knocked down by a storm, which then smoldered for weeks.

Here is the tree 2.5 weeks after the burn, on December 5. The underside of the fallen stem was burning slowly from west to east, and the top of the stem protected the coal from the snowfall.

Here is the tree 2.5 weeks after the burn, on December 5. The underside of the fallen stem was burning slowly from west to east, and the top of the stem protected the coal from the snowfall.

Another heavier snowfall still did not stop the burn, here on December 12. This was a cold day, but a moderate west wind kept the coal alive.

Another heavier snowfall still did not stop the burn, here on December 12. This was a cold day, but a moderate west wind kept the coal alive.

At that point, however, the coal was no longer sheltered. When I returned on the 16th, I found the fire had gone out. It had lasted nearly a month.

 

St. James Farm Autumn Update

by Carl Strang

This blog has been on hiatus while I work on my annual research summary documents, but I have been paying regular visits to St. James Farm Forest Preserve, the site I monitor and where I soon will begin as volunteer steward. Today’s entry shares some photos from recent weeks.

Winged euonymus adds color to the autumn scene, but is an invasive shrub that will need to be removed at some point.

Winged euonymus adds color to the autumn scene, but is an invasive shrub that will need to be removed at some point.

As leaves come off the trees, bird nests are revealed. This oriole nest had a significant content of synthetic fibers, including fishing line from the nearby ponds. The fuzzy white object hanging below the nest is a fishing lure, the hook not quite visible at this angle.

As leaves come off the trees, bird nests are revealed. This oriole nest had a significant content of synthetic fibers, including fishing line from the nearby ponds. The fuzzy white object hanging below the nest is a fishing lure, the hook not quite visible at this angle.

This silver-spotted skipper still was active on November 16.

This silver-spotted skipper still was active on November 16.

The opossum lay dead in the center of a trail, also on November 16. Cause of death was not evident.

The opossum lay dead in the center of a trail, also on November 16. Cause of death was not evident.

Late autumn migrants included this white-crowned sparrow youngster.

Late autumn migrants included this white-crowned sparrow youngster.

The most unusual stopover duck was a female pintail on the east pond.

The most unusual stopover duck was a female pintail on the east pond.

Another duck worth noting was this male. Accompanied by a female mallard, his huge size and her identity suggest that he may be a mallard-black duck hybrid.

Another duck worth noting was this male. Accompanied by a female mallard, his huge size and her identity suggest that he may be a mallard-black duck hybrid.

 

Singing Insects Wrap-Up

by Carl Strang

October’s cold gradually is silencing another year’s array of singing insects. In recent weeks I have made some final trips to squeeze just a little more data out of the season.

In early September I succeeded in catching an Autumn yellow-winged grasshopper with actual yellow wings (most of them in the region have had red-orange hind wings).

In early September I succeeded in catching an Autumn yellow-winged grasshopper with actual yellow wings (most of them in the region have had red-orange hind wings).

On October 5 I made a final trip up to Illinois Beach State Park, and found some stripe-faced meadow katydids still singing.

On October 5 I made a final trip up to Illinois Beach State Park, and found some stripe-faced meadow katydids still singing.

By then, of course, they had developed their full color.

By then, of course, they had developed their full color.

I was able to complete a photo series on the species with some cerci shots.

I was able to complete a photo series on the species with some cerci shots.

On October 11 I returned to Gar Creek Forest Preserve in Kankakee County and made more recordings. I did not find any more Cuban ground crickets crossing the trail, but was surprised by several variegated ground crickets doing so.

I had never before seen a variegated ground cricket, like this male, wandering in the open.

I had never before seen a variegated ground cricket, like this male, wandering in the open.

This female has an interesting pattern of pale dashes on her wings.

This female has an interesting pattern of pale dashes on her wings.

It’s reasonable to assume that they walk about at night for most of the season, but like many singing insects extend their usual nighttime activity into the day as temperatures cool. I was glad to get the visual confirmation that this species is at the site along with the (probable) Cubans.

Probably my last singing insect photo series for 2016 was of this spotted ground cricket at St. James Farm on October 18.

Probably my last singing insect photo series for 2016 was of this spotted ground cricket at St. James Farm on October 18.

 

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