by Carl Strang
I debated what tack to take with this post. There are plenty of possibilities. I could have titled it “Two Problems Solved at Once.” Another possibility was “Well, THAT’s Embarrassing.” Then there’s the old standby, “Another Lesson Learned.” “One More Gift from This Field Season” would have had a more positive twist. I even considered “Tastes Like Chicken,” but that’s too tangential. Maybe I should just tell the story.
The roots of this tale go back in two directions, previously introduced in this blog. One had the title, ironic now, of “A Small Mystery Solved.” In it I described how I had tracked certain long cricket trills to cracks and earthworm holes in shaded portions of the mansion lawn at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Though I didn’t see the crickets, and the match wasn’t perfect, the songs sounded close enough to those of Say’s trigs for me to conclude that they were the singing species, even though they otherwise, in the literature and in my experience, are known as a species that lives in vegetation up off the ground.
To my credit I held onto some skepticism toward this conclusion, and was planning to set pit traps at some point to try and catch one of these crickets. Then an unexpected opportunity appeared. During my lunchtime walk on Tuesday I noticed that small bunches of dried leaves that had collected along the curb were harboring some of these singers. I began pulling out leaves so as to expose what I expected would prove to be Say’s trigs. The songs certainly sounded like those of that species. Crickets began to jump out, mostly tiny immatures, and then I flushed a larger one. It manically jumped away. It was light brown, like a Say’s trig, but not totally so, and I wasn’t able to get a clear view. I tried again, and ultimately one sat still for a photo.
That one escaped, but I finally caught another, unfortunately damaging him. I was going to need to collect one, anyway, as ground crickets are one of the most difficult groups to identify. I went through the keys in the Singing Insects of North America website, and placed this cricket in the genus Neonemobius. I leafed through the species pages, and ultimately found a match, right down to the pale palps and the head that was light brown on top but dark brown or black in front.
That brings me to the other root of this story. The variegated ground cricket’s mapped range encompasses the Chicago area, but information about the species in the literature is limited and anecdotal. Prior to Tuesday there was only one northern Illinois record. The most common theme is that they occur among the pebbles at the edges of streams. I have made a few trips trying to find them (one chronicled here, plus two journeys to Kankakee River State Park), always without success.
So the joke’s on me. For years I have been working right next to a sizeable population of variegated ground crickets without realizing it. I have searched in several counties for them, only to find them literally in my back yard. But what about that “Tastes Like Chicken” title? This is not the only cricket whose song sounds to my ear like that of Say’s trig. There also is the spring trig, which indeed lives close to the ground. The melodious ground cricket’s song is not too far off, though the two are readily distinguished by an experienced ear. From now on I need to be suspicious whenever I think I am hearing a Say’s trig. A moist lawn is far removed from a pebbly stream bank, so with that kind of ecological range I expect to find variegated ground crickets in many more places. I am making recordings, and sometime in the coming winter I will attempt to find a way to distinguish the variegated ground cricket’s song. I will share the results here.