by Carl Strang
I celebrated the 4th of July by making a long-anticipated trip to the Woodworth Prairie in northern Cook County. This has been identified by a research group at the University of Illinois Chicago, led by Dennis Nyberg, as a primary location for Okanagana balli, the short grass prairie cicada. They indicate the peak activity of the cicadas as mid-June to mid-July. I missed them last year, finding the UIC information a little too late. I got there at 11 a.m., the indicated start of the cicadas’ peak daytime activity period. My first impression was how small this prairie remnant is.
A continuous buzzing sound was audible, but it was high-pitched and faint. Separate rapid pulses could be discerned, so I knew I wasn’t hearing Roesel’s katydids, but the singers were difficult to locate. I walked the trails a bit, impressed by the little prairie’s botanical diversity and minimal presence of non-prairie plants, but decided to see if I could get some guidance in the prairie’s interpretive center.
Michelle was new to the site, and didn’t know much about the cicadas, but she was willing to lend me her young ears (if a paraphrase of Britain’s bard is acceptable in an Independence Day story). We were able to get close to a singing cicada, and within 20 feet or so I was able to hear him clearly. We were in the final stages of a stalk when there was a movement, and one of the little cicadas flew in and landed on a nearby plant.
What ensued was a capsule lesson in singing insect biology. The arriving cicada was a female, drawn by the male’s song. She flew even closer to us and he appeared (he had been on the far side of a compass plant leaf, which blocked our view of him).
I was able to get satisfactory photos and sound recordings of the cicadas, benefiting from Michelle’s observation that they were most active when the sun was not blocked by clouds. I felt ready to recognize their song should I encounter them elsewhere. Though the song is faint to my ears, the SongFinder renders it quite loud, and with the reduced pitch it is recognizable as a cicada song, a continuous rapid pulsing resembling that of a swamp cicada or lyric cicada.