Pilot Mountain

by Carl Strang

On the way to visit my brother and his family in eastern North Carolina for Christmas, I made a stop at Pilot Mountain State Park in the western part of that state. Pilot Mountain is an isolated peak that rises 1500 feet above the surrounding terrain (against only 2 miles’ diameter at the base), and its striking profile is visible from miles away in all directions. My route takes me right past it, and a quick entry is available from that interstate highway.

There are two high points, and you can drive to the top of the lower of those.

This view from the top gives a sense of Pilot Mountain’s dramatic rise.

The sides of this quartzite-cored peak are forested. White, red and chestnut oaks were the dominant trees in the part of the forest I explored.

A nice network of trails wraps around the park.

As a biologist, I was especially interested in the wildlife.

The deer and the gray squirrels looked small as compared to those in northern Illinois. This probably is a latitude effect rather than a peculiarity of the park.

My eyes scanned the trail from time to time, and I was pleased to see some bobcat tracks, but those were dwarfed by a few footprints that had been made by something much larger.

This was the clearest example. At 3-4 inches in diameter, with a circular overall outline and lacking toenail marks, it was close to mountain lion tracks I have seen out West.

Here is an example from Big Bend National Park, Texas.

I passed on my observation to the park staff. A little internet searching revealed that the presence of mountain lions in western North Carolina is debated. I believe my identification is correct, but this does not mean that there is a resident population with Pilot Mountain in a lion’s home range. Our experience in the Midwest is that mountain lions have been wandering outward from the Black Hills, several states away. One was killed in Chicago a few years ago. These cats, though big, are wary and capable of staying out of sight. I would not be surprised at all if eventually it is established that the mountainous region of western North Carolina and surrounding states harbors a resident population of this large predator.

 

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One Last Look Back

by Carl Strang

My recent blog posts have shared highlights of this year’s field season, as I searched for singing insects in the 22-county area I define as the Chicago region. Those accounts haven’t told the whole story, though, and I have a few last photos to shake out of the bag. These fill out some of the experience of doing this kind of regional study.

For instance, other animals have enhanced the delight.

The chalk-fronted corporal is a dragonfly I have encountered only in the northern portion of the region, in this case at the Lulu Lake Nature Preserve in northern Walworth County, Wisconsin.

Walsh’s grasshopper was a new one for me. Not a singing species, but an interesting find at the Poverty Prairie in DuPage County’s Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve.

Turkey vultures assemble at dusk on the Culver, Indiana, water tower. My travels take me back to my home town a few times each season.

Interesting and beautiful scenes are to be found in the relatively undisturbed wild areas which are my main destinations.

An early evening rainbow at Conrad Station in the Indiana Kankakee Sands presaged a thunderstorm-dodging drive home on July 2.

Pinholes between tree leaves cast solar eclipse shadows at Blackwell Forest Preserve. Though the moon covered around 90% of the sun at peak, I detected no change in singing insect activity.

One of the more beautiful scenes was this panne in the Indiana dunes.

I had hoped to find delicate meadow katydids in the pannes. Dusky-faced meadow katydids were a good find there, but that species has a solid hold in other dunes wetlands.

The Pembroke Savanna in the Illinois Kankakee Sands is one of my favorite sites.

I believe these white pines at Warren Dunes State Park in Berrien County, Michigan, are the same ones where Richard Alexander found treetop bush katydids in 1971. He described the trees as small, but all are tall now. They still foster pine tree crickets, but I did not find any bush katydids.

I ended up with 115 county records for the season, totaling all newly found singing insect species over all the counties.

So far, I have found sprinkled grasshoppers only in oak savannas on sand soils.

Dusky-faced meadow katydids at the Indiana Kankakee Sands were a Newton County record.

This curve-tailed bush katydid at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in Indiana provided a Jasper County record for my study.

I found a healthy population of long-tailed meadow katydids, including this brown-legged male, at Ferson Creek Fen in Kane County.

The Ferson Creek population also had green-legged variants, including this female.

Lisa Rainsong, Wendy Partridge and I drove south to Loda Prairie to check out the bush cicadas there. I concluded this year that the species does not occur in the Chicago region.

This Texas bush katydid was singing in early October at Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve, DuPage County. I had an observation of this species on October 17, my latest ever in the region.

Most of the long winter remains, and as I compile data, write reports, and visit museums, I will be looking forward to another collection of rich experiences as I resume my field study in 2018.

 

Psorting Out Psinidia

by Carl Strang

This year I found longhorn band-winged grasshoppers (Psinidia fenestralis) in Newton County, Indiana, Kenosha County in Wisconsin, and Lake and Cook Counties in Illinois. Previously I had found them in Porter and Marshall Counties, Indiana.

Longhorn band-winged grasshoppers are named for their disproportionately long antennae.

The hind wings of these small grasshoppers usually are bright red.

Two of the newly found populations raised questions. First, at Burnham Prairie in Cook County, they had bright yellow hind wings, in place of the usual red.

I learned that yellow hind wings are known to appear occasionally in the species.

Then I found red-winged ones in the same spot at Illinois Beach State Park where I found insects I had identified as Kiowa rangeland grasshoppers (Trachyrhachys kiowa) in 2014.

That original identification was based on one individual I captured with this wing pattern.

Kiowa rangeland grasshoppers typically have transparent bases in their hind wings, but these can be pale yellow. That fit my photos, and there are historical records for Lake County, Illinois, so I felt that my identification was correct. Now, poring over references and my photos, and going back and forth in my conclusions, I have decided that the 2014 grasshoppers in fact were Psinidia, and the individual I caught was an unusual one with transparent hind wings. The antennae had flattened bases and were as long as the hind femurs, like Psinidia but unlike T. kiowa, which have shorter, finer, rounder antennae. The hind tibias were largely bluish, but had black bands, then yellow, then black at their proximal ends, like Psinidia. Reference photos for kiowa show blue tibias interrupted by yellow bands toward the proximal ends, but no black.

Confusion between these two species is understandable: both are small, and both have heads that protrude above their thoraxes. Unfortunately, this removes the only present-day record I had for Kiowa rangeland grasshoppers in the Chicago region. I still hope to find them, because historical records place them not only in Lake County, Illinois, but also Will County, and Lake, Newton, and Jasper Counties in Indiana.

Seeking Seasides

by Carl Strang

Coming into 2017, I had found seaside grasshoppers (Trimerotropis maritima) in most of the counties bordering Lake Michigan in the Chicago region. This band-winged grasshopper is mainly a beach-dwelling species, though it also occurs at Burnham Prairie, an inland site in Cook County

Seaside grasshopper, Indiana Dunes. This individual belongs to a population living on fine grained quartz sand.

The hind wings are bright yellow, and males can rattle their wings loudly in flight

Seaside grasshopper, Illinois Beach State Park. This one lives on a substrate of mixed fine stones ground by glaciers and waves. Selective pressures clearly have been at work on these hoppers.

Prior to this year I had found the species in Berrien, Porter, Lake (Indiana), Cook, and Lake (Illinois) Counties. In 2017 I added LaPorte County, and went up to Cliffside Park in Racine County, where GoogleEarth showed a narrow line of dunes and beach. I found, though, that storms and a risen lake level had removed these

The edge of Lake Michigan at Cliffside Park, looking north. Waves now wash right up to the cliff base.

Looking south from the same position.

I thought that might mean the end of the search, but a new GoogleEarth survey showed parks in the cities of Racine and Kenosha that looked promising. Both proved to have seaside grasshoppers, so now with the addition of Racine and Kenosha Counties I regard the Chicago region map complete for the species. I remain open, however, to stumbling across seaside grasshoppers at additional inland sites.

More Prairie Meadow Katydids

 

by Carl Strang

Last year I first encountered what I thought were prairie meadow katydids (Conocephalus saltans), in my survey of the Chicago region’s singing insects. Further study confirmed my identifications, and set the stage for finding the species in a third location in 2017. On September 2, Lisa Rainsong and I ran into a cluster of small meadow katydids at the Pembroke Savanna Nature Preserve, a Nature Conservancy savanna in eastern Kankakee County. These proved to be a mix of two species, straight-lanced meadow katydids (Conocephalus strictus) and prairie meadow katydids.

A scene at Pembroke Savanna, which I regard as the most beautiful site in the 22-county Chicago region.

Finding these two similar species together provided us with a tutorial in distinguishing them. Most of the individuals were females, and the contrast in their ovipositors could not be starker. Those of the prairie meadow katydids had a slight curve, and were much shorter.

Female prairie meadow katydid, Pembroke

Straight-lanced females have straight ovipositors that typically are as long as their bodies, or longer.

Female straight-lanced meadow katydid, Judy Burton Nature Preserve, Indiana. This one is atypical in having long wings. Most have wings about a third the length of the abdomen.

Prairie meadow katydids have wings that usually are only a quarter of the abdomen length. The knob at the tip of the head is more pronounced, though both species have this knob. The sides of the hind femurs also are different. In prairie meadow katydids there is a pattern of thin lines that resemble a ladder, on a brown leg. There usually is a diffuse black line that appears to be within the straight-lanced meadow katydid’s green hind femur. Some variation occurs in many of these features, so I advise caution and the examination of several individuals within a population.

Males have been fewer in both species, in the populations I have examined.

 

Male prairie meadow katydid, Pembroke

Again, the more exaggerated head knob, shorter wings, and different femur pattern are helpful. Cerci are very different in the two species, also.

Male straight-lanced meadow katydid, from another eastern Kankakee County savanna site.

I did not get a photo showing the prairie meadow katydid’s cerci, but their ends are much shorter, proportionately, than those of the straight-lanced in the photo, comparable in length to the teeth, and bend outward somewhat rather than being straight.

A final curious note from Pembroke was that the prairie meadow katydids were all brown, as the photos show. The straight-lanced meadow katydids had considerable amounts of green color. This may have been the result of local selective pressures, as this is not a consistent difference across the species’ ranges.

Rounding Out Conehead Maps

by Carl Strang

This has been a good year in my quest for coneheads. The coneheaded katydids of genus Neoconocephalus are represented by six species (historically, seven) in the 22 counties I define as the Chicago region.

 

Sword-bearing conehead. This katydid is named for the female’s long ovipositor.

Prior to 2017, I had found sword-bearing coneheads (N. ensiger) in every county. In a recent post, I detailed the completion of the search for Nebraska coneheads (N. nebrascensis), which can be found in all but the three Wisconsin counties of the region. In another post I described progress in finding slightly musical coneheads (N. exiliscanorus).

 

Robust conehead in singing posture

 

Today I can report that I now have found two more species in all 22 counties: the robust conehead (N. robustus), and the round-tipped conehead (N. retusus). Though it extends into Wisconsin, the round-tipped thins out rapidly south to north, and some effort was needed to find a singing round-tipped conehead in the southern portion of Racine County, the region’s northernmost county.

 

Round-tipped conehead. The shape of the cone and the amount of black pigmentation help in species identification. The large jaws help them with their diet of seeds, and teach researchers to use caution in handling them.

The sixth species is the marsh conehead (N. palustris), which so far I have found only in Porter County, Indiana. Though I continue seeking the slender conehead (N. lyristes), I fear that it is extinct in the region.

 

Slender conehead. This museum specimen from the early 20th Century was collected in what is now Illinois Beach State Park. I have failed to find the species in my thorough exploration of its habitats there.

Wetland Singing Insects Update

by Carl Strang

For years, now, my biggest conservation concern among the singing insects has been in the wetlands. Though our historically abundant prairies in the Chicago region were diminished nearly to nothing by 19th– and 20th-century agriculture, preservation and restoration projects across the region have halted and, to a small degree, reversed that trend. The same could be said for savannas, and our forests did not suffer as much.

Wetlands, like prairies, declined thanks to agriculture, but a new challenge continues to threaten their integrity: invasive wetland plants. Four of these are especially problematic: common reed (Phragmites australis), reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea), hybrid cattails (Typha x glauca), and purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). These plants, released from consumers and competitors, have displaced the diverse native species in a large and increasing portion of our wetland acreage. The loss of native wetland grasses, especially, appears to account for the difficulty I am experiencing in finding wetland katydids.

Reed canary grass

Two species that were here historically, I have not found at all: the delicate meadow katydid (Orchelimum delicatum), and the slender conehead (Neoconocephalus lyristes). In the past these were known to occur in four and three, respectively, of the Chicago region’s 22 counties, and I am nearly out of places to check where they might still live. The stripe-faced meadow katydid (O. concinnum), once found in 8 of the counties, appears to be down to a single population at Illinois Beach State Park.

Stripe-faced meadow katydid

Two wetland katydids are doing well. Gladiator meadow katydids (O. gladiator) and black-legged meadow katydids (O. nigripes) are tolerant of the invasive plants, and remain common in every county.

That leaves an in-between category of wetland singing insects that apparently are limited to invasives-free wetlands, and are managing to hang on in a few to several sites. Northern mole crickets (Neocurtilla hexadactyla) occur in wet prairies as well as marshes. In 2017 I added records for two more sites, one of which represented an additional county record. To date I have found them in 10 counties, and remain optimistic that I can add more populations to the inventory.

Dusky-faced meadow katydids (O. campestre) historically were ubiquitous in our marshes. To date I have found them only in marshes with minimal impact by the invasive plants. These katydids seem able to persist in relatively small wetland areas, however, and each year I have been able to add new populations to my list. In 2017 I found them in the Indiana Kankakee Sands preserve, adding Newton County to the record, and in the Tefft Savanna preserve in Jasper County, also a county record. That brings to seven the number of counties where I have found the species, but there are seven more where it once lived, but where my search has been unsuccessful. Dusky-faced meadow katydids also proved this year to be abundant in the panne wetlands at West Beach in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. That was a good find, but I had hoped for delicate meadow katydids there.

Female dusky-faced meadow katydid, Tefft Savanna

Finally, this year I added a third population and county for the nimble meadow katydid (O. volantum). They were singing from arrowheads (Sagittaria sp.) mixed with cattails along Grant Creek in the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. That find was made from a kayak, and that is the vehicle from which further searching for the species will need to happen, as this species likes plants growing in relatively deep water. Some places which historically held nimble meadow katydids no longer have them, but several other sites remain for me to check in future years.

Jumping North

by Carl Strang

Of the many species of singing insects that have expanded their ranges northward in the past half century, the jumping bush cricket (Orocharis saltator) has been the fastest mover in the Chicago region. I have done my best to keep up with them ever since 2007, when I first heard their bell-like chirps in DuPage County, Illinois. As their density built dramatically in southern DuPage, the front of their advance typically shifted half a mile north each year.

Jumping bush cricket

At the same time, they were on the move to the east in Cook County. I first found them in Kane County, to the west, in 2014. The line of their advancing front has angled southwest to northeast, suggesting an Indiana source of the invasion, though last year I heard them singing just north of Peoria, well southwest of the Chicago region.

Over the past couple of years, what seemed to be a simple spread has become complicated. First, the advance apparently stalled out in the northeast corner of Cook County, just south of the Lake County border. Farther west, however, the crickets’ expansion has, if anything, accelerated. Following the Fox River, they have moved 8 miles up its east bank in 3 years.

But that’s not all. This year I found them even farther north on the west bank. Then, on September 20, I heard jumping bush crickets singing at the edge of Wauconda, in western Lake County. Subsequent checking revealed that this is an isolated small group, probably a human-assisted introduction. I will be interested in seeing if they successfully reproduce there. In any case, there is no end in sight to the dramatic northward movement of this species, and I will continue to invest some time each year in documenting it.

Map of the Chicago region, showing locations for jumping bush crickets. Black dots indicate counties where the species has become established. Stars indicate farthest north locations: red for 2014, yellow for 2015, green for 2016, and the two blue stars indicate new north locations in 2017, along the west bank of the Fox River in Kane County, and at Wauconda in Lake County.

Handsome Trig Hijinks

by Carl Strang

Last year I followed a tip from Joe Balynas and found handsome trigs (Phyllopalpus pulchellus) established along the Cal Sag Channel, an extension of the Calumet River, in southern Cook County. This apparently was the first finding of the species in northern Illinois.

The handsome trig’s scientific name translates to something like “beautiful little leaf-mouth,” a reference to the expanded tips of its palps.

The Cal Sag Channel points toward the southeast corner of my own DuPage County, and I resolved that this year I would follow the trails along that waterway, and discover how far the trigs had come. That plan was blown to pieces on August 18. I was running along a recreational trail in Wheaton, central DuPage, when I heard the ratcheting mechanical trill of a handsome trig. I stopped to search, and was amazed to find four of the little crickets on the underside of a burdock leaf. Over the following weeks, I heard handsome trigs in scattered other locations in the southern half of DuPage County. I went back to southern Cook, and rode my bicycle west along trails that follow the Des Plaines River, past the point where it forms a complex with the Cal Sag Channel and the Chicago Sanitary Canal. Handsome trigs were audible at intervals along the trail, all the way into DuPage County’s Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve. This was one route by which the species may have reached my county.

What the hey? I have been able to recognize the handsome trig’s song for years, now. I had not found them in my own home county until 2017, and now suddenly they are in scattered spots across southern DuPage. Something about this year has favored the species, as they seem to be more numerous across the Chicago region. In 2017 I also added records for Will County, Illinois, Starke County, Indiana, and Berrien County, Michigan. This last is a new find for southwestern Michigan, but not for the state, as a recent paper reported them in southeastern Michigan (O’Brien, Mark F., and Julie A. Craves. 2016. Phyllopalpus pulchellus Uhler, the handsome trig (Orthoptera: Gryllidae), a confirmed Michigan resident. Great Lakes Entomol. 49:202-203).

The handsome trig is another species of singing insect that is expanding its range northward. It seems reasonable to think that they quietly have been spreading in DuPage County for years, but conditions in 2017 elevated their little local populations to the point where they drew my attention. I will be interested in following their numbers and possible ongoing range extension in coming seasons.

Slightly Musical Coneheads Extend West

by Carl Strang

The slightly musical conehead (Neoconocephalus exiliscanorus) bears my favorite common name among all the singing insects of the Chicago region. That name was bestowed because W.T. Davis, who first described the species in 1887, thought its song was faint. He later changed his tune for good reason, as I find I can hear them easily through the open window of a car driven at a moderate speed. This was, in fact, how I came to add the slightly musical conehead to the species list for the Chicago region. Previously it was unknown in the northern third of Indiana, so I hadn’t expected to find it. Then, prowling the roads of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore with me in 2012, graduate students Gideon Ney and Nathan Harness, of the University of Missouri, recognized the katydid’s distinctive rapid buzz pulses.

Slightly musical conehead. They can be brown or green, and have longer cones at the tips of their heads than our other species in genus Neoconocephalus.

Subsequently I found slightly musical coneheads in several northern Indiana counties. They have not been a priority in my 22-county survey of the Chicago region’s singing insects, but I may make them one next year. In 2017 I added three counties: LaPorte and Lake in Indiana, and Kankakee in Illinois. Those last two additions extend the range significantly west, and provide the first observation of the species in the northern half of Illinois, according to the database in the Singing Insects of North America website.

Here is the updated map of my observations for this species:

Black dots represent the counties where I have found slightly musical coneheads through 2017.

And here is a recording of the song:

I often hear them singing in rural roadside ditches, and they are increasingly abundant as you go south. They sing only at night, in my experience.

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