Scouting Jasper County

by Carl Strang

The Jasper-Pulaski State Fish and Wildlife Area in Indiana started out as a recreational destination for hunters and fishermen. Natural history enthusiasts in the region associate J-P with sandhill cranes, as the big birds pause there by the thousands when they migrate north and south, and birders congregate as well, to see them.

J-P seemed a good place to find singing insects in Jasper County, and I stopped there to scout the property on my way home from last weekend’s trip. Some of the back roads lead to extensive ponds and marshes, which will be of interest later in the season. My favorite spot, though, was at an intersection of two gravel roads where the soil was heavy in sand, with a black oak savanna and wide berms of sand prairie vegetation.

Tiny oaks form a vanguard as the savanna reaches into the prairie.

Tiny oaks form a vanguard as the savanna reaches into the prairie.

As I walked one of the roads, I flushed a sulfur-winged grasshopper. I had been hoping for a photo opportunity with this species.

At first glance this insect seems doomed, its dark color contrasting with the pale sand.

At first glance this insect seems doomed, its dark color contrasting with the pale sand.

Unless you are very close to it, however, the grasshopper just looks like a little stick or piece of debris.

The folded forewings conceal bright yellow hind wings with broad black edges.

The folded forewings conceal bright yellow hind wings with broad black edges.

The next time a similar opportunity comes up, I’ll try for a flight photo that will show those hind wings. In any case, I drove away from J-P with some great locations, and three early-season species to start my Jasper County singing insects list (green-striped grasshopper and spring field cricket were the other two).

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Scouting Fulton and Pulaski

by Carl Strang

When I updated my regional guide to singing insects over the winter, I decided to add range maps. This was a little premature, because I barely have begun the survey work, but I also had sources in the scientific literature to augment my own observations.

Here is a page from the guide. The map shows the counties I decided to include in a region centered in northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana, but extending a little into Wisconsin and Michigan. Black dots are recent observations, open ones are from the literature, which often goes back more than 5 decades.

Here is a page from the guide. The map shows the counties I decided to include in a region centered in northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana, but extending a little into Wisconsin and Michigan. Black dots are recent observations, open ones are from the literature, which often goes back more than 5 decades.

Another winter project then became to identify sites in all the counties where I could focus my survey efforts, mainly state parks and other public properties. The plan is to start visiting them this year, noting species I can identify through sight and hearing without collecting. If collecting seems necessary, I can seek permits in a future year, but there will be plenty to do without going to all that trouble yet.

Over the weekend I visited sites in Fulton and Pulaski Counties, Indiana, which are the empty counties in the snowy tree cricket map at the eastern end of the bottom row. In Fulton County I had decided to focus on the area around Lake Manitou at Rochester. This proved to be a good choice, as there appear to be representative habitats of nearly every type.

The Judy Burton state nature preserve, for instance, has extensive meadows undergoing prairie restoration, and woodlands, all with maintained trails.

The Judy Burton state nature preserve, for instance, has extensive meadows undergoing prairie restoration, and woodlands, all with maintained trails.

It is early in the season, but I was able to add county records for the green-striped grasshopper and spring trig.

Pulaski County boasts the Tippecanoe River State Park and Winamac Fish and Wildlife Area. The state park is almost entirely forested, so I didn’t spend much time there (early singing insect action is in the meadows and prairies), but it will be great later in the year. The fish and wildlife area has a more diverse array of habitats.

This weedy field had many displaying green-striped grasshoppers and a few spring field crickets, both of which I now can add to the maps.

This weedy field had many displaying green-striped grasshoppers and a few spring field crickets, both of which I now can add to the maps.

This grasshopper, photographed in the above field, appears to be a species of Melanoplus, and so not a singing insect.

This grasshopper, photographed in the above field, appears to be a species of Melanoplus, and so not a singing insect.

As time permits, I will be returning to these areas later in the season. I am looking forward to making the acquaintance of many places in the region’s other counties, as well.

Spring Field Cricket Survey

by Carl Strang

The spring and fall field crickets arguably are our most familiar singing insects. The two species are common, span the season from spring to late fall, and their identical songs are easily recognized chirps. Physically, spring and fall field crickets are essentially identical.

Fall field cricket (female)

Fall field cricket (female)

Developmentally and ecologically they are different, however. These days we are hearing spring field crickets, which overwinter as nymphs, mature in late April or May, and finish in mid-July. The figurative baton then passes to the fall field crickets, which overwinter as eggs in the soil, mature after mid-July, and continue into October or early November. These are two different survival regimes, and the spring field crickets arguably have the tougher challenge. Winter would seem to be easier to survive as a buried quiescent egg than as a nymph. I have been testing this idea by surveying the two species in DuPage County, and recently completed the spring field cricket part of the survey. I drove 3 routes in eastern DuPage in the evenings, listening with the car windows open. The crickets’ songs are sufficiently penetrating that I can expect to hear them, at least well enough to get a general sense of where they are and where they’re not.

Here’s the composite map to date. Green dots represent locations with both species, yellow show places with only fall field crickets, and blue with only spring field crickets (so far).

Here’s the composite map to date. Green dots represent locations with both species, yellow show places with only fall field crickets, and blue with only spring field crickets (so far).

As you can see, there are many blue dots in the eastern half of the county. Many, perhaps most or all, will become green when I repeat these routes in late summer or early autumn. The impression I formed while driving around is that there are pockets of crickets, scattered and somewhat isolated, with a lot of empty space between them. Some populations are relatively large, but some of the blue dots represent single singers. Spring field cricket habitat is narrower, it seems, needing to supply better winter shelter, but I will be better able to draw tentative conclusions after the survey drives for fall field crickets later this year.

Mayslake Insects Update

by Carl Strang

We’re at the edge of summer, and bees and butterflies and Odonata are center stage. Skippers have been appearing at flowers.

Earlier in the season there were wild indigo dusky wings. This is one of the skippers that typically rest with wings open.

Earlier in the season there were wild indigo dusky wings. This is one of the skippers that typically rest with wings open.

This week a new skipper appeared in Mayslake’s main prairie. This is one that closes the wings at least part way, and had practically no detail beneath.

This week a new skipper appeared in Mayslake’s main prairie. This is one that closes the wings at least part way, and had practically no detail beneath.

With the wings partly open there clearly is some color on the leading edge of the forewing, and small groups of dots. It appears to be a tawny-edged skipper.

With the wings partly open there clearly is some color on the leading edge of the forewing, and small groups of dots. It appears to be a tawny-edged skipper.

Carolina saddlebags have been one of our more consistent early season dragonflies.

The violet forehead is just visible in this back-lit individual.

The violet forehead is just visible in this back-lit individual.

So far the only spreadwing damselflies I have seen have been slender spreadwings.

Slender spreadwings continue to be common this week.

Slender spreadwings continue to be common this week.

In the past few days a number of dragonflies have made their first appearances of the season.

One of the recent species is the eastern amberwing. I like the way the light projects a distorted image of this male’s wings onto the rock.

One of the recent species is the eastern amberwing. I like the way the light projects a distorted image of this male’s wings onto the rock.

Early bumblebee colonies have begun sending out workers.

This bee was diving into the foxglove beard tongue flowers so quickly upon landing that flight photos were needed to show sufficient detail for identification. The black basal abdominal segment followed by two yellow ones is one clue. The trace of yellow on the back half of the dorsal thorax is another.

This bee was diving into the foxglove beard tongue flowers so quickly upon landing that flight photos were needed to show sufficient detail for identification. The black basal abdominal segment followed by two yellow ones is one clue. The trace of yellow on the back half of the dorsal thorax is another.

The other details are consistent with an identification of Bombus auricomus.

The other details are consistent with an identification of Bombus auricomus.

New insects will be emerging frequently for the next couple of months.

Mayslake Birds Update

by Carl Strang

We have entered the time when most birds are focused on raising young. It is much quieter at Mayslake Forest Preserve now that territories are established and the effort of feeding nestlings occupies the parents’ time and energy.

This Baltimore oriole’s nest hangs above the trail near the northeast corner of Mays’ Lake.

This Baltimore oriole’s nest hangs above the trail near the northeast corner of Mays’ Lake.

The nest is sufficiently concealed by black cherry leaves that its composition is difficult to read, but I would be surprised if it is not constructed largely of fishing line, as has been the case for all recent oriole nests there.

Red-winged blackbirds are ever-ready to cuss out any person who comes anywhere near their nests.

Red-winged blackbirds are ever-ready to cuss out any person who comes anywhere near their nests.

The preserve’s pair of eastern kingbirds is much quieter than they were before nesting.

The preserve’s pair of eastern kingbirds is much quieter than they were before nesting.

Some broods already have fledged.

Yesterday this tree swallow brood occupied a dead tree at the stream corridor marsh.

Yesterday this tree swallow brood occupied a dead tree at the stream corridor marsh.

A final, sad note was the find of a dead chimney swift in Mayslake Hall.

It’s not clear how the swift got inside, or how a bird that nests in dark chimneys could have met its end in a room as spacious as the Event Hall.

It’s not clear how the swift got inside, or how a bird that nests in dark chimneys could have met its end in a room as spacious as the Event Hall.

Swifts have stiff tail feathers, which they use to prop themselves against interior chimney walls.

Swifts have stiff tail feathers, which they use to prop themselves against interior chimney walls.

I took the swift to Willowbrook, which periodically delivers specimens to the bird department at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

Ephemeral Senescence

by Carl Strang

One of my winter projects has been to study the herbaceous plants, so see how they might be identified in the snowy season. There have been many posts on that subject here over the past few winters. As I run down the list of species at Mayslake Forest Preserve, though, there are many I have not been able to find. Therefore I am trying to keep mindful of them this growing season, to follow their careers and see what becomes of them.

One group of plants in this category are the spring ephemerals, the woodland plants that send up shoots at the beginning of the growing season, bloom, set seeds, and finish as the forest canopy closes and light becomes greatly diminished at ground level. Some of the Mayslake species in this category are spring beauty, Dutchman’s breeches, cutleaf toothwort, and white trout lily.

A trout lily blooms on April 22.

A trout lily blooms on April 22.

The bottom line is that these plants withdraw to their roots and cut off their tops, which wither and are recycled by the efficient decomposers in the soil. This is true even of the trout lilies, whose leaves are thick and waxy.

The trout lily tops were well into their senescence on May 20.

The trout lily tops were well into their senescence on May 20.

This past week I looked, but failed to see any sign of the trout lilies where they had been so thick just a few weeks earlier. The same is true of the entire category of spring ephemerals. Here, then quickly gone…except that the roots or bulbs persist beneath the soil, patiently waiting for another year to pass.

Garter Snake Spotting

by Carl Strang

From time to time I encounter Chicago garter snakes (our local version of the eastern garter snake) at Mayslake Forest Preserve. When I do, I attempt to get good photos. I would like to see if individuals can be distinguished by details of their color pattern. I had good success with this at Fullersburg Woods with fawns, at least until their spots faded. Here is a photo from June 5.

The snake chose to leave before I could get a clearer look than this.

The snake chose to leave before I could get a clearer look than this.

In my files were photos of two other encounters in past years. One of these clearly had a different pattern.

This individual was photographed in 2010. Eight columns of pale scales separate the back of the head from the first dark spot that interrupts the side stripe. That number is only 5 or 6 in the first photo.

This individual was photographed in 2010. Eight columns of pale scales separate the back of the head from the first dark spot that interrupts the side stripe. That number is only 5 or 6 in the first photo.

The final snake, from last year, was more like this month’s individual.

The separation is five columns in this one.

The separation is five columns in this one.

Nevertheless, the two color patterns are different. Check out the small dark stripe, between the head and that first spot, at the boundary of the belly scutes and the side scales. That stripe is confined to the upper edges of the belly scutes in the 2012 snake, except for one little spot. In this year’s individual that stripe extends onto the lower halves of three adjacent side scales.

The color patterns are distinct in these three photos. They only are valid individual markers, though, if they do not change over time. I don’t know if such is the case.

Bowl and Doily Spider

by Carl Strang

Spider webs are delightful structures, and one of my favorites is that of the bowl and doily spider.

The globular bowl is above, the flat doily a short distance below it. The entire structure is suspended in a last year’s Canada goldenrod top.

The globular bowl is above, the flat doily a short distance below it. The entire structure is suspended in a last year’s Canada goldenrod top.

I was able to find the relatively small builder in the photo, and thought I might see if the species could be identified from it.

The spider has a distinctive pattern of white and chocolate brown.

The spider has a distinctive pattern of white and chocolate brown.

It proved to be no contest. There is only one species that makes this kind of web east of the Mississippi, Fontinella communis. Having gotten that far, I did a little reading on their natural history. The double web structure is thought to provide protection from predators above and below. The spider waits on the lower outside surface of the bowl. Prey enter the bowl, are tripped up by its interior cross strands, and fall to the bottom. The spider bites the prey, pulls them through the web, and wraps them.

Spring Trig

by Carl Strang

This is the story that made my participation in the Connor Prairie Bioblitz worth the trip. Beginning in 2008, I have heard occasional cricket trills that sounded identical to those of Say’s trigs, but were too early in the season. In 2008 my office was at Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve, and on June 27 I heard one of those odd early songs. I also noted them on July 8 and 14 that year. In 2009 the first Say’s trig was singing on a more reasonable August 6, and in 2011 on July 31. In 2010 the first was on July 19 at Waterfall Glen, a little marginal perhaps but acceptable. Then last year I heard one near the Fox River in Kane County on June 10. Granted, last year was early phenologically, but this was completely out of line. I speculated that perhaps a rare few Say’s trigs hatched early and successfully overwintered as nymphs.

Then came last weekend’s bioblitz at Connor Prairie. This is too early to expect much singing insect action in the woods, so I headed straight to the large prairie restoration project west of the interpretive center.

View of the restored prairie from the balloon.

View of the restored prairie from the balloon.

The same area at ground level. This prairie first was seeded around 5 years ago.

The same area at ground level. This prairie first was seeded around 5 years ago.

There were plenty of spring field crickets chirping, as expected. But as I approached the taller grasses I also began to hear trills. Lots of them. Furthermore, they sounded just like Say’s trigs. On June 8. I began stalking these singers. Several times I got within 2-3 feet, but was never able to see one of the singing crickets in the dense grasses. When my approach stopped the singing, the cricket was able to outwait me. I was fairly certain they were above the ground, and so probably were not ground crickets. They became quiet in late morning. I heard one singing briefly in the afternoon, but that was it.

In the evening I returned, and as the sun slid to the horizon I was pleased to find that the mystery crickets were singing again. Again I tried stalking, and again was frustrated. Then, when yet another cricket stopped singing when I got within 2 feet, I shuffled my feet through the grass clump where his perch seemed to be, and up he hopped. I caught him in a vial.

He was a brown trig, but his head was entirely dark rather than pale with dark stripes as is characteristic of Say’s trig. I made the necessary decision and collected him.

Here he is, pinned and drying. The uniformly colored head is distinctive.

Here he is, pinned and drying. The uniformly colored head is distinctive.

The color, size and shape otherwise are similar to Say’s trig.

The color, size and shape otherwise are similar to Say’s trig.

I returned the next morning, but was unable to flush another male or sweep-net a female. None of my printed references mentioned anything like this cricket. I was able to connect to the Connor Prairie’s Wi-Fi, and searched the Singing Insects of North America website. Imagine my elation when I found it! This is an unusual instance of a species getting a common name before its scientific name is assigned. It has been designated the spring trig, Anaxipha species G. The SINA spreadsheet lists May and June dates, and gives a range that includes Indiana and Illinois, though apparently my cricket is the first specimen for Indiana. So, now there is another species to listen for in my travels. I will want to get some definition of this species’ season relative to Say’s trig. The reasonable assumption is that, unlike other Anaxipha, the spring trig overwinters as a nymph.

Bioblitz Species Hunt

by Carl Strang

Yesterday I introduced last weekend’s bioblitz at Connor Prairie in Indiana. My focus as a bioblitz participant is on singing insects, of course, but those are few early in June, even as far south as Indianapolis. Not to worry, though. There were teams focusing on many groups of organisms, but others had no specialists to address them, so I enjoyed filling in where I could. Odonata were one such group.

Twelve-spotted skimmer

Twelve-spotted skimmer

Powdered dancer

Powdered dancer

After much pondering, I concluded this was a female cobra clubtail. Indiana has a similar species, the handsome clubtail, but certain details ruled it out.

After much pondering, I concluded this was a female cobra clubtail. Indiana has a similar species, the handsome clubtail, but certain details ruled it out.

For instance, the C-shaped line at the top of the side of the thorax is connected, and apparently too thick for a handsome clubtail.

For instance, the C-shaped line at the top of the side of the thorax is connected, and apparently too thick for a handsome clubtail.

I also saw three bumblebee species.

Bombus fervidus was an easy ID.

Bombus fervidus was an easy ID.

There was a butterfly team, but I took advantage of photo ops that presented themselves.

Variegated fritillary

Variegated fritillary

Nevertheless, my main interest was singing insects. I found 4 species, and botany team leader Scott Namestnik added a 5th.

Green-striped grasshoppers were common, as were spring field crickets.

Green-striped grasshoppers were common, as were spring field crickets.

I saw a single sulfur-winged grasshopper. Scott ran across a pocket of Roesel’s katydid nymphs. Connor Prairie is about even with the Crawfordsville area where I found Roesel’s a couple years ago. So far, none have turned up farther south in Indiana.

The final species is worth a blog post all its own (to be continued).

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